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The Beaver

The Beaver

By Jonahh Oestreich • May 7th, 2011
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Icon Pictures 

Original release: May 6th, 2011
Running time: 91 minutes

Director: Jodie Foster

Cast: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Jennifer Lawrence, Anton Yelchin

Depression can be a strange thing, at least when you have a hand puppet that can speak for you… well, not really for you, but a toy companion that can help you speak again in the first place.

As absurd as this might sound, Mel Gibson and The Beaver ingeniously challenge our perception of a mental illness that has become an omnipresent lifestyle disease.

Walter Black (Mel Gibson) used to be a successful toy executive as well as a beloved father and husband, until he fell ill with depression. As Walter’s attempts at getting his life back on track keep failing, his wife Meredith (Jodie Foster) throws him out so she and her two sons can become a normal family again, albeit normal doesn’t necessarily mean normal in this case either.

With the beaver puppet on his hand, the deported lands a more or less pathetic suicide attempt after which the puppet miraculously starts telling off the drunk depressee with Walters’ voice, and in a pigs-might-fly manner everything seems to be on the up from then on.

The Beaver

Fortunately The Beaver is not a ventriloquy movie; Black always speaks himself while moving the puppet’s mouth. Gibson’s brilliant performance makes this kind of projection credible as a potential therapy – and is in itself a trenchant comment on society’s perplexity when it comes to depression, actually more a silent illness and too often thought of as a mere personal matter.

The film seems to hold its audience right above the abyss which Walter Black was looking into way too long, and this way – to stay with German philosopher Nietzsche – the abyss is looking back, not only at Walter, but also at his family, and the audience.

Thus, the scene is set for an involving family drama with weird turns and quite some hilarious moments. I found it remarkable how the script holds the side stories together; they are like superimposed short films.

Walter “The Beaver” Black’s comeback in his company, the tense relationship with his wife, the affection and ingenuous curiosity of his little son, and the highly dysfunctional connection with his teenage son Porter (Anton Yelchin) are opposing perspectives on a man who is in a very dark place.

The Beaver

I think Yelchin as rebellious Porter Black is the strongest, and in a sense most fierce counterweight to his father. His notes about every detail he doesn’t like about his father (so he doesn’t become like him) fill the walls of his room, and almost inevitably we read at some point: “Hates his father who hates his father who hates his father…”

With Porter’s struggle, the story affords to side-track as we learn about the attempts of the teenager to connect with a girl from his school. His distinctive empathy soon lets him look into another abyss, and whereas he tries to help her he can’t seem to do the same for his father. Porter’s own story might seem a little beside the point but in the end I thought his struggle perfectly mirrored his dad’s doom and gloom.

The Beaver

There are a few truly bizarre moments in The Beaver, too, right at the pinpoint of tragedy and comedy. A threesome with Walter, his wife Meredith and the beaver, for example, had me confused, above all as I wondered what it must have been like for Gibson and Foster to film that sex scene.

Jodie Foster did a fine job, not only as loving wife and mother but also as the film’s director. In some movies, you can recognize the actor who is also the director, which can lessen the experience. Not at all here, Foster is 100 percent actress. Yet this is a film with the signature of a female director who can walk a tightrope exactly sensing the moment when it all might slide into free fall. The Beaver plays with those moments and skirts each one of them, and in the end I thought if you’re lucky enough to have the right people around you, depression needn’t be something to lose your arm over.

Jonahh Oestreich

Jonahh Oestreich

One of the Editors in Chief and our webmaster, Jonahh has been working in the media industry for over 20 years, mainly in television, design and art. As a boy, he made his first short film with an 8mm camera and the help of his father. His obsession with (moving) images and stories hasn’t faded since.

You can follow Jonahh on Twitter @Jonahh_O.

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