“The Beaver” was Jodie Foster’s first feature film directorial effort since “Home for The Holidays” and it starts off with Mel Gibson as Walter Black laying on an inflatable cushion in his pool, looking lifeless as if any direction he’s had in life has been rendered completely non-existent. We quickly learn he is the CEO of a toy company, has a beautiful wife and two sons, and that he is severely depressed. We are meeting him at the point where he has been in this depressive state for quite some time, and it has gotten to where his wife Meredith (played by Foster) doesn’t want him living at home anymore, and his kids don’t know what to make of him.
After a failed suicide attempt, Walter is brought back to the land of the living through a hand puppet of a beaver which develops a life of its own after he puts it on his hand. With a Michael Caine cockney-like accent, the beaver tells him he is going to save Walter’s life. And sure enough, his life gets better very quickly as the beaver begins doing all the talking for him both at home and at work. But as time goes on, this beaver threatens to make Walter hit rock bottom in a way he may never be able to recover from.
“The Beaver” is a black comedy which gets blacker as it rolls along. The trailers made it look like a light affair, but this is most certainly not the case. It does have its funny moments, but it is really a serious examination of depression. This is an important issue because it is not something you can just simply get over regardless of what others will tell you. Depression can seriously debilitate you and affect those who love you the most, but not many fully understand this. The idea that you must go through life and take the punches which come with it can only go so far. Sooner or later, we find we can only take so much until we break. While some may have a great smile on their faces, they may be fighting a battle you know nothing about.
As Walter Black, Gibson reminds us of what a great actor he can be when given the right material. Aside from his work as a director, which really has been truly remarkable, it is easy to forget what a great presence he can be onscreen. Gibson captures Walter’s emotional downfall in a way few actors could, and he makes you care about him even as he heads further downhill emotionally. It is a brave performance that doesn’t hold anything back, and you have to admire the lengths Gibson goes here.
Foster remains an excellent actress as always, and seeing her acting alongside Gibson is a treat as they were so much fun to watch together in “Maverick.” She makes Meredith Black a strong-willed person who holds it together despite Walter’s behavior. It all makes Foster’s work even more fascinating to watch, and you sympathize with her plight throughout.
It is a real shame it took Foster 16 years to direct another movie. Her past efforts of “Little Man Tate” and “Home for The Holidays” showed a great eye for characters isolated from others because of who they are and what they are going through. Her work on “The Beaver” is especially commendable in that it is not an easy script to bring to the silver screen. Finding the balance between the comedy and drama makes this challenging even for the best directors working today. But Foster manages to pull it off like the professional she is, and she shows an incredible sensitivity to the subject of depression.
For me, “The Beaver” is one of the best films made about mental illness. The screenplay by Kyle Killen topped the 2008 Black List, a ranking of the best unproduced screenplays. I can see why as it features wonderful characters which are thankfully down to earth, and the dialogue feels fresh and does not contain an abundance of worn out clichés. Many will find the premise of a man working through mental illness with the aid of a hand puppet to be far-fetched and unbelievable. But this screenplay really takes some chances, and I honestly did not find any of what I saw as being beyond belief.
Besides, is it really that far-fetched for an adult to play around with puppets or stuffed animals? Look at these names: Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Ben Kenber. All these men have become well known for performing with puppets to the joy of many. Yes, I did put my name up there because I still have a love for stuffed animals which I used to make home movies with and sometimes bring to my day job. People may think this is strange, but I like how it sets me apart from the rest of the crowd.
In addition, there are other wonderful performances to be found here. The late Anton Yelchin, who did unforgettable work in the “Star Trek” movies, “Terminator Salvation,” and “Green Room” among others. He is excellent as the Black’s oldest son, Porter. Throughout, he is terrified of becoming like his dad and implores his mother to divorce him. Yelchin makes what could have been a major brat into a fascinating individual whose endeavors in doing homework for others have long since become quite a profitable venture for him. His relationship with his father never feels contrived, so when we get to the end of the film, the emotions in their climatic meeting feels truly earned.
I also really liked Jennifer Lawrence as Norah, the popular valedictorian cheerleader who hires Porter to write her graduation speech. When this film was released, she was still riding high on the acclaim she received for “Winter’s Bone.” Norah is anything but a cliché, and she surprises us as much as she does Porter with a strong intelligence and a completely welcome lack of snobbery for a popular high school student. At the same time, she also hides a pain deep inside which defines her state of mind, and this presents her with something to overcome. Lawrence is great to watch here, and it was a sign that she had more great performances to give us which we eventually got in films like “Silver Linings Playbook.”
Congrats also goes out to young Riley Thomas Stewart who portrays the Black’s youngest son, Henry. It’s a remarkable performance for an 8- or 9-year-old as he has to convey both the confusion and effect his dad’s depression has on him. The scenes he shares with Foster and especially Gibson are wonderfully realized, and it helps that he has a former child actor directing him who knows how to coax a performance out of such a young human being.
Watching “The Beaver” reminded me of another great movie which had a big effect on me, “Lars And The Real Girl.” Both films featured characters whose pasts damaged them emotionally, and who seek release through unorthodox methods. With Gibson, it’s a hand puppet, and with Ryan Gosling it’s a sex doll he treats as his new girlfriend. Each takes what seems like a completely implausible story and surprises us by making it more than some average comedy which just dumbs everything down.
If you have not already seen “The Beaver,” I do hope you give it a look. Regardless of how you feel about Gibson these days, it’s an incredibly well made movie that takes a great script and visualizes it with respect and empathy to the subject of depression. While it was declared a “flop” after its first week at the box office, this should not define its worth. This film may not be for everyone, but those in the mood for something cinematically unique should find much to admire here. More importantly, I applaud any motion picture which takes the subject of depression seriously. It is not a mental condition that anyone can simply get over.
By the way, I love how Foster got Teri Gross of “Fresh Air” fame to do a cameo. I always wondered what her studio at WHYY in Philadelphia looked like, and we get a brief look at it here. Now how often does that happen?
* * * * out of * * * *