Film review by: Witney Seibold
Mel Gibson‘s recent extracurricular activities should not diminish the fact that he remains a fine and charming performer. In Jodie Foster‘s “The Beaver,” he plays a damaged man, who manages to relate to people anew by charming them with a goofy-looking hand puppet. Gibson is such a strong performer that we actually see the affable and gregarious man underneath all the damage. Indeed, it’s our outside knowledge of the equally damaged Gibson that lends a lot of necessary oomph to his performance. Both Walter Black, his character, and Gibson himself, are struggling through a toxic environment to present themselves as humbled and capable.
“The Beaver” is a strangely disarming film, and more powerful than you’d expect from a film so peculiar. In its description, indeed, it sounds less like an actual feature film, and more like a parody description from an old episode of “The Simpsons.” Walter Black is suicidally depressed. All the traditional therapies have failed him, drugs have failed him, and even outsider treatments have failed him. His toy business is failing to the chagrin of his co-workers (represented by Cherry Jones). His wife Meredith (Foster) is frazzled and hurt, and his teenage son Porter (Anton Yelchin) hates him to an ineffable degree (Porter keeps Post-It notes in his room, detailing every last idiosyncrasy he loathes), and he is at his wit’s end. He sleeps all day. When he is thrown out, he checks into a motel and attempts suicide. When even that fails, he begins, unexpectedly, talking to a ratty beaver hand puppet that he rescued out of a dumpster. It’s not long before he is communicating exclusively through the beaver (named The Beaver), and actually starts building up relationships with his family and co-workers again.
It sounds like the hook for a gimmicky slapstick comedy, and I can imagine a parallel universe where this film starred Jim Carrey, and it was an insufferable film that managed to make hundreds of millions of dollars. But “The Beaver” has no comedy on its mind. Indeed, Foster seems far more bent on depicting just what depression is. It’s a horrible illness that effect the whole family. It’s about putting up divides, and separating yourself from the world. It’s about slipping further and further into yourself. Walter may have found a puppet through which he can communicate, and he manages to stay alive for a few months thanks to it, but The Beaver, for all its affable charm, is a symbol of how far removed he is. How depressed he remains.
There is a kind of unnecessary subplot involving Porter’s thriving underground career as a school essay ghost writer. It is said he has a talent for speaking in the voice of other students. He fosters a kind-of romance with the school valedictorian-slash-head-cheerleader Norah (Jennifer Lawrence from “Winter’s Bone”), who has asked him to write her graduation speech. I understand that this is an extrapolated theme for speaking through others, and using others to accentuate your isolation, but it feels a bit clumsy, and you’ll find yourself asking why the valedictorian of a high school would need to shell out $500 to have someone else write her speech, when she likely has plenty to say herself. The scene with Yelchin and Lawrence are sweet, and they’re both talented young actors, but their scenes in the film feel like escapees from a corny made-for-TV movie.
Foster cast herself in the film, and her character is surprisingly naggy. I understand that Meredith is at the end of her rope, but Foster, who is such a hard-edged actress, didn’t bring enough of her backstory to the role to make her appear too much more than a shrill housewife. This was a curious choice from an actress/director known for her strength.
It’s an emotionally disarming film, and one that ends up having more on its mind than you’d expect. At times, it feels more essaying than organic – at the end much of the drama is lost to “the message” – and much of the film feels like padding, but overall, it’s a bittersweet, hurtful, dark family drama.