SXSW 2011: THE BEAVER Review

Peter Martin, Managing Editor
Right from the outset, The Beaver places its heart on its sleeve. Mel Gibson stars as Walter Black, a man suffering from severe depression over a period of years. His long-suffering wife Meredith (Jodie Foster, who also directed) has finally tossed him out, and the poor soul finally resorts to suicide.

No, The Beaver is not a comedy.

But neither is it a straightforward drama. The opening sequence elicits laughter, even as Walter's suicide attempt fails. We have very little context for Walter's depression; it appears to have become a pressing issue within the previous two years, but is it something he's had to deal with his entire life? Lacking that context, we're presented with the spectacle of Mel Gibson acting like a loon, and it's funny rather than sad or touching.

That becomes a major challenge for The Beaver: How seriously are we meant to take it, especially after Walter plucks a hand puppet out of a trash bin and starts using it as a coping mechanism?

Walter returns home for a visit, giving Meredith a card to read to explain that the puppet is prescribed by his psychiatrist and that she should talk to the hand. Er, puppet. Er, The Beaver, as Walter takes to calling his new friend, using a broad Cockney accent that calls to mind a bad imitation of Michael Caine.

Meredith is in disbelief and their oldest son Porter (Anton Yelchin), already ashamed of his father's actions, shakes his head in mortal embarrassment. Only younger son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) continues to support Walter unconditionally. He seems to especially love The Beaver; he's a young kid, and the idea of his father talking to him through a hand puppet doesn't seem strange to him: it's cool.  

Walter slowly regains Meredith's affections, though he remains estranged from Porter. In a parallel story, Porter slowly develops a guarded relationship with Norah (Jennifer Lawrence*), a young beauty at school. She's the class valedictorian but is struggling with her graduating speech. She's heard that Porter is good at writing essays for other students, and is especially adept at capturing their voices; pretending to be other people is his specialty, he tells her. She is only too happy to pay him $500 to write the speech, and allows him into her life so he can learn enough to write in her voice. Porter suspects that Norah has some hidden issues that are blocking her ability to write the speech.

As Porter makes headway with Norah, Walter / The Beaver appears to regain a measure of mental health. He returns to his role as CEO of a toy company, inspiring his troops with the idea for a fresh new toy. Both father and son are constructing facades to deal with their inner conflicts. That much is clear. Resolving those conflicts, though, will require more than a few tears and more than a little pain.

As the director of Little Man Tate and Home for the Holidays more than 15 years ago, Foster favored family dramas leavened with a measure of comic relief. The Beaver continues that pattern, building on a well-regarded script by Kyle Kellen that's probably a bit too on the nose when it comes to making sure most of the character development is clearly delineated. The comedy emerges from the script and the situations, but even more so from Mel Gibson.

His performance is quite strong and well-modulated. There's absolutely nothing wrong with what he's doing here as an actor; he can range from a whisper to a scream in a heartbeat. His actions after the completion of production, however,  have cast a large shadow, making it difficult to divorce Walter and The Beaver entirely from the man who's playing him. That probably makes the film come across as more of a comedy than Foster intended.

Still, The Beaver's eventual turn toward a darker, more serious tone is genuine and touching. Depression can be a debilitating illness that friends, family members, and romantic partners find difficult or impossible to understand. Sympathy is one thing, but true empathy is rare. The film is empathetic toward Walter's plight, and suggests that his son Porter may be heading down the same path.

Taking depression seriously and treating it with compassion and insight does not give The Beaver a "good conduct" pass for its imperfections as a film. But neither should it be dismissed entirely because of the off-screen actions of its lead performer. The Beaver proves to be a solid drama with heart and soul.

* Updated: To add credit.
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