Jodie Foster’s sad, silly “Beaver” unveils at SXSW

By Sean O’Connell “It’s not a comedy,” Jodie Foster warned the crowd that packed the Paramount Theater at the South By Southwest film festival for the world premiere of her new film, “The Beaver.”

She wasn’t kidding.

The mental-health drama, which Foster admitted was “probably the biggest struggle of my professional career,” taps into the sorrow and self-loathing under the surface of Mel Gibson’s withered, weathered skin to analyze how one man confronts his crippling depression and split-personality disorder. It explores how mental instability can divide a married couple, alienate a parent from their children, rip a family to shreds, and obliterate a once-healthy, once-happy human being. In a side plot, Jennifer Lawrence’s character quietly laments the loss of a family member, while Anton Yelchin coaxes her to stop hiding behind her grief and return to life.

And then things actually get dark.

“The Beaver” deserves contemplation, and earns the avoidance of the snap judgment today’s Internet journalism craves.

This much, I am willing to say. The central conceit, the idea of a man funneling his purest emotions through a puppet he finds in a dumpster, is silly … and no amount of heavy lifting by Foster, Gibson or Yelchin ever overcomes that. They come close. Real damn close. But I couldn’t get past the silliness of the puppet premise, as much as I wanted to (and I really, really wanted to).

Gibson is subdued and pained. I initially thought he needed one BIG scene to get past the puppet. By the end, I realized that moment wouldn’t have been earned. And yes, there is a sequence early in the film, as Gibson’s character is shouting at the beaver puppet about “blowing it up” that you’ll think back to his highly-publicized rants and leave the film. But it’s temporary, and Gibson The Actor quickly overshadows Gibson The Media-Fuelled Trainwreck.

In its smallest moments, though, the film gets its hands around some very difficult emotional subjects that beg for further exploration. Foster and her film just don’t fully explore them before her time runs out. If “Beaver” wasn’t a movie, the discussion would have gone on much longer. Because films demand closure, “Beaver” leans on graduation-speech wisdom and the half-hearted promise that things have gotten a little bit better (and will continue to improve).

Pat? Maybe. But only because what came before it was raw and heartfelt.

“The Beaver” had its world premiere at the South By Southwest film festival. It will open in theaters in May.

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