The Beaver (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Walter Black (Mel Gibson) had been suffering from major depression for two years. His wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster), could no longer put up with his illness because it began to affect their kids, Porter (Anton Yelchin) and Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), so she decided to kick him out of the house. Right after a failed suicide attempt, Walter began to speak through a hand-puppet called The Beaver. With a promise to make his life better, Walter agreed to all of Beaver’s demands. Written by Kyle Killen and directed by Jodie Foster, “The Beaver” was an honest look at how depression could demolish even the strongest families. It was challenging because we were asked to identify with a character who took the puppet everywhere, British accent and all, and somehow take him seriously. It could have been a disaster in less capable hands. However, the writing and direction were focused on the human elements rather than the inanimate object. Foster was wonderful as the wife and mother who clung onto any hint that maybe her husband was getting better. We stuck with her because we knew as well as she did that, deep down, Walter’s condition was getting worse as long as he had the puppet in hand. Denial was her greatest coping mechanism. Foster excelled in reaction shots in which she had to shift from one side of the emotional spectrum to another. For instance, the happiness she felt when she saw her husband finally spending time with their youngest up until she realized that trigger of the sudden change in Walter wasn’t quite normal. I wouldn’t necessarily have made certain decisions she took on, but it was difficult not to be reminded that she was an exhausted wife and mother and perhaps she needed to escape. There was subplot that involved Porter, very angry but a smart and sensitive young man, and Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), the valedictorian of their graduating class. Although interesting because of their atypical chemistry, their relationship was less powerful and less urgent than the family that was essentially rotting from the inside. When the film switched to the teenagers’ emotional struggles, I questioned where it was ultimately heading. Though the reward was present at the finish line, we received it too late. Perhaps if Porter and Norah were not always front and center, the material’s momentum would not have staggered. Furthermore, the heavy symbolism weighed down an already astute material. Images involving a broken wall, roller coasters, and someone floating passively on water felt forced. It might have sounded great on paper but it verged on melodrama on screen. “The Beaver,” Gibson’s notoriety aside, deserves to be commended because of its strong performances and its fearlessness in portraying depression as a contagion. That is, if gone untreated, a downward spiral was inevitable. A snide “Get over it” doesn’t help anybody.