Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Beaver

Jodie Foster's third feature as a director is, like her first two - Little Man Tate (1991) and Home for the Holidays (1995) - about a family caught in a crisis. In The Beaver, it arises because the father, Walter Black (Mel Gibson), is suffering from serious depression. The boss of a toy company in Westchester, New York, he not only absents himself from work but also from the comfortable suburban home he shares with wife Meredith (Foster) and their two children, teenager Porter (Anton Yelchin) and seven-year-old Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart).
He seems beyond help and, as a voice-over explains, ''(his) depression is an ink which stains everything it touches''. Then a beaver hand puppet rescued from a dumpster pulls him back from the brink. ''Oi!'' it says to him as he's on the verge of suicide. ''I'm the beaver and I'm here to save your life.'' It draws Walter out of himself and the pair become a quasi-ventriloquist-dummy duo, the puppet perched on the end of Walter's left arm. He speaks through it, as it were, with a cockney accent (borrowed from Michael Caine), until it seems as if the beaver has acquired a life of its own.
It's a pretty wacky premise and the film extracts some uneasy comic mileage from it. But Foster and her cast play it straight. There's long been a crazy edge to Gibson's performances (stretching all the way back to Mad Max via films such as Conspiracy Theory and the four Lethal Weapon films) and it sometimes cuts very close to the bone. But his underplaying here is very effective, allowing the situation and, bizarrely, Walter's inanimate friend to do most of the work.
Drawing on a smart set of ideas in Kyle Killen's script, Foster is even able to make us wonder if Walter's bonding with his ''prescription puppet'' is all that strange after all. The quirkiness of human behaviour is everywhere in evidence in The Beaver, and the film is filled with musings about how we struggle to find our voices and often need help to draw out what we feel.
Walter's son, Porter, is understandably frustrated by what he sees as his father's game-playing. Alone in his room, he regularly bashes his head against the wall, a way of letting out his feelings (as well as denting the plaster). He also runs a racket writing papers for fellow students and is in demand for his ability to emulate their ways of expressing themselves. Which is ironic, given he's frequently at a loss for words.
Nevertheless, it's this talent that leads him into a relationship with a cute classmate, Norah (Jennifer Lawrence, nominated for an Oscar for her role in last year's Winter's Bone). Until she asks him to write her graduation speech, he'd regarded her as out of reach. Now he needs to get to know her to do what she's paying him for and is eager to make a good impression.
''Don't mess this up,'' he tells his reflection as he checks his appearance in the mirror, although it doesn't appear to be listening. His subsequent involvement with her flavours the film with an appealing teen romance but is also filled with mishaps. At the same time, it results in his discovery of a psychological disturbance in her past that has pushed her in unexpected directions.
Only when the film strays towards something approximating horror does it appear to have run out of ideas, even if it's simultaneously upping the dramatic ante. At the point where everyone around Walter keeps telling him enough already with the beaver, the puppet turns nasty, taking on something of the demeanour of the monstrous Chucky in the Child's Play films (1988-2004). ''I love you, Walter,'' it declares. ''And that's why I'll never let you go back.''
For the most part, though, The Beaver is surprisingly effective, uniting a group of characters who are all struggling with demons that aren't easily vanquished. It's also bold enough to build into its final scenes (via Norah's speech) the notion that the promise of a happy ending can be the lie that leads us all astray.