REVIEW: The Beaver [2011]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 91 minutes | Release Date: May 6th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Director(s): Jodie Foster
Writer(s): Kyle Killen

“Look at you—stone-drunk and flattened by a television”

We hear it all the time and we know it’s a lie: Everything will be okay. No it won’t; it’s impossible and anyone who thinks different is deluded. There will always be missteps, depression, tragedy, guilt, remorse—they are unavoidable. But those instances of darkness should never become who we are. And just because we are all misunderstood doesn’t mean we are invisible. Yes, we all go through the same rotten system of life’s lesser gifts, but we are still unique creatures. What gets us noticed amidst the abyss is what we do to overcome.

While The Beaver keeps these sentiments close at heart, Kyle Killen’s script isn’t their only display. No, the bigger story surrounding this film lies in its lead actor. Fresh off his most recent run-in with the media due to his proclivities towards showing the world what a horrible person he is, Mel Gibson embodies how unfortunate our lives can be. Almost single-handedly torpedoing his co-star and director Jodie Foster’s work, this film became mired in events beyond its control. No matter how magnificent it could be, the stigma of its star would never let it reach its full potential. I’d never ask you to give Gibson a third chance—I’m not even sure any of us gave him a second one—but his performance as Walter Black deserves to be seen nonetheless.

Delving into the suburban troubles of too much—too much love, too much responsibility, too much success—the entire Black family is a mess. The spotlight may be on the patriarch sleepwalking through life with days spent in bed and a lackluster work ethic, but he is not the only one hurting. His wife Meredith (Foster) treads water by spending late nights on Hong Kong conference calls so she doesn’t have to feel her husband’s cold, lifeless body next to hers. Their eldest son Porter (Anton Yelchin) is caught at a crossroads, trying his damnedest to be as different from his father as possible yet realizing how similar they are. And the youngest son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) is affected by everything, subconsciously praying to one day become as invisible as he feels when always getting forgotten by the rest.

The family goes through the motions until the cliff they’ve been teetering over finally breaks loose. Walter is sent packing and his sad-sack demeanor does nothing to deflect the fact he is on the course towards suicide. It isn’t necessarily a surprise since depression did the same to his own father, but for some reason a glimmer of survival remains hidden inside. Right before his fateful drunken leap off a tenth-floor balcony a voice pierces through the air in the guise of a forceful Australian beaver. The ratty puppet he salvaged from the dumpster filled with remnants of his past has come to life to save him. It becomes the home to his psyche’s will to live, biting and clawing tooth and nail to set him straight. Walter is no longer in control; he is just the failure behind his rebirth as the man he never had the confidence to be.

And somehow the world eats it up. Acknowledging the fact he is crazy, they don’t seem to care due to his newfound lease on life and astonishing ability to create million dollar toy ideas for the company he inherited. His VP (Cherry Jones) finally sees a man she is willing to fight for; Henry finally sees a father who won’t let him fade away into the background; and Meredith sees the man she fell in love with. In fact—a series of TV-spots including “Today” proves it—only Porter refuses to give into the charade. He’ll listen from afar to the man he used to look up to, laughing and smiling and showing us that love still exists. But the simple truth of watching Walter devolve and give up is unshakeable. If there is any chance Porter will one day fall prey to the same sickness, he’ll do whatever he can to prevent it.

As a result, the boy begins to catalog their similarities. Shown in a couple nicely orchestrated jump cuts and camera pans, we watch the mannerisms of both side by side. The head massaging, lip biting, and constant desire to sleep are unmistakable, but the hatred towards their respective Dads for surrendering is the trait that hits the hardest. So Porter bides time until graduation by using his skill to write in the voice of others in order to compose school papers for hire and make enough money to travel the world before college. But just like Walter never saw the beaver coming to save him, Porter never saw Jennifer Lawrence’s cheerleader and valedictorian Norah as anyone who paid him any mind let alone the savior she becomes. Both teens are trapped inside preordained existences, their friendship ultimately saving them from the self-loathing they’ve endured for too long.

And so The Beaver continues on its bumpy journey towards salvation. There are weak spots like a joke about Meredith passing Henry on the sidewalk at school to reinforce his ‘invisibility’, but for the most part it’s a satisfying look into a family as messed up as the rest of us. The true success lies in the performances, though: Gibson is phenomenal and probably an Oscar candidate if not for his extracurricular activities; Foster is solid, but much more so behind the camera; Stewart is wonderfully precocious; and Yelchin shows us again that he’s a star in the making. It is Yelchin’s direct paralleling with Gibson that resonates, both pushing towards an inevitably hard and painful fall. This fact is the best part of the film—it’s willingness to cut through the sentimentality and humor to go as dark as a story about mental illness needs to go because everything is not okay. Fortunately we can let the parts that are overcome the rest.

[1] JODIE FOSTER as Meredith and MEL GIBSON as Walter Black stars in THE BEAVER. Photo: Ken Regan. Copyright © 2009 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.
[2] (L to R) JODIE FOSTER (Meredith Black), RILEY THOMAS STEWART (Henry Black ) and ANTON YELCHIN (Porter Black) star in THE BEAVER. Photo: Ken Regan. Copyright © 2009 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.
[3] JENNIFER LAWRENCE as Norah and ANTON YELCHIN as Porter star in THE BEAVER. Photo: Ken Regan. Copyright © 2009 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.

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