© 2011 Ray Wong
It's been more than 10 years since Jodie Foster directed a feature film. The Beaver, a serious drama about depression and mental illness, reunites Foster with her Maverick co-star and good friend Mel Gibson.
Walter (Mel Gibson) suffers from severe depression, especially since his father died and left him in charge of the family toy company. While business continues to decline, Walter is like a stranger in his own home: his wife Meredith (Jodie Foster) is struggling to stay connected to the man she once loved; his son Porter (Anton Yelchin) tries everything he can to distance himself so he won't end up like his father; and the youngest son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) is withdrawn and timid, feeling invisible and helpless.
Soon Meredith's had enough and they agree to separate for the health of the children. Walter has hit bottom, and he grows strangely attached to a childhood stuffed beaver toy. After a failed suicide attempt, Walter realizes he can channel all his positive personality and energy through the Beaver, leaving the negative, broken Walter alone. His odd behavior is first met with scrutiny by his family and employees, but when they see that a more cheerful, productive Walter has indeed emerged from this "alternative therapy," they go along with it. Sales are up, and Walter's eccentricity makes him one of the most talked about personalities in the country. His relationship with Henry has improved, and he and Meredith seems to rekindle their past passion.
The only person who is not buying into the whole charade is Porter. He has a crush on cheerleader-valedictorian Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), who wants Porter to write her graduation speech for her. In the attempt to find out more about Norah, Porter discovers her secrets and infuriates her when he tries too hard to get close to her. His own world is crumbling before his eyes when his "side business" is discovered. Meanwhile, Meredith realizes that Walter has been lying to her, and he's no longer suffering from depression alone, but something more serious. Their trust is tested, and Meredith fears for her family's safety as Walter's mental illness worsens.
Mel Gibson (Edge of Darkness) has had his own real-life battle with depression, marital problems and alcoholism, so this role seems to be tailored for him. Despite what you think of Gibson as a person, you have to admit that he's a decent actor. With this role, he has the ability to display a wide range of emotions and character depth. His Walter is tortured, confused, conflicted, lost, crazy, elated, reborn, loving… And Gibson convinces us that this character is real, perhaps because it reflects so much of his own personal struggles.
Jodie Foster (Nim's Island) has a more supporting role as Meredith. Her performance is solid, if somewhat peripheral (except for a few key scenes with Gibson). Given Foster also directs, it's understandable that she would reduce her role in front of the camera. Instead, Anton Yelchin (Terminator Salvation) has the second lead role as Porter. The story draws parallels between father and son, and Gibson and Yelchin do an admirable job mirroring and complimenting each other in their respective roles.
Riley Thomas Stewart (You Don't Mess with the Zohan) is adorable and wonderful as Walter's youngest son. Usually young male actors tend to be obnoxious and overacting, but Stewart's performance is genuine and sweet. Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone) follows her Oscar-nominated performance with a solid turn as the smart girl with a secret. She and Yelchin act well as a would-be couple. Cherry Jones (Amelia) is marvelous as Walter's amiable and supportive vice president.
TV scribe Kyle Killen's (Lone Star) first screenplay takes a quirky premise and turns it inward. It opens with Walter's voiceover describing his own depression, and you rather know everything is going to turn out okay. The characters are well-drawn and the dialogue seems genuine. However, the plot ranges from the absurd to the contrived. Much of it feels rather implausible. The biggest problem I have with the story is that Walter's condition is hardly explained -- we're expected to accept his severe depression and mental breakdown on face value.
Sure, there are hints about his family, his father, his sense of loss and failure. However, all that is superficial. Just as we're expected to accept his depression, we're also called to accept his "cure" and eventual breakdown (and the salvation in the end) as if mental illness and depression can be treated so easily. Anyone who has suffered from or lived with anyone with depression and mental illness would disregard this as ridiculous.
Foster's (Home for the Holidays) direction, however, is controlled, nuanced and relatable. It's probably one of her most accessible films. She succeeds in leaving all the clutter behind and focusing only on the main characters and their relationships. Seldom are there more than three characters in the same scene. Foster also trusts her actors. Her friendship with Gibson no doubt enables her to put her trust in his performance, but she also leaves plenty of room for her young actors to shine. Yelchin, in particular, manages to flex some of his dramatic muscles.
The Beaver is an interesting look at depression, mental illness, family and what is important in one's life. It's part hero's journey and part father-son drama, and it is a serious matter despite the seemingly whimsical premise (who wouldn't laugh at a stuffed toy named The Beaver?) reminding me a bit of American Beauty. Alas, even with solid performances and skillful direction, the movie is bogged down by sappy and contrived storytelling. Maybe the beaver can rebuild this one.
Stars: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Riley Thomas Stewart, Jennifer Lawrence, Cherry Jones
Director: Jodie Foster
Writer: Kyle Killen
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material, some disturbing content, sexuality, language, drug reference
Running Time: 91 minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 7.4 out of 10