Tuesday 19 May 2015

Movie Review: The Beaver (2011)

A mental illness family drama, The Beaver boasts excellent performances and tackles its grim subject with laudable sensitivity, but ultimately veers towards awkward maudlin territory.

Toy company executive Walter Black (Mel Gibson) is struggling with severe depression. His wife Meredith (Jodie Foster) and two children, including teenage son Porter (Anton Yelchin), try to cope as best as they can. Porter, who wants nothing to do with his sick father, runs a high school side-business writing essays for other students in exchange for money, and is approached by popular cheerleader Norah (Jennifer Lawrence) to write her valedictorian speech.

After being kicked out of the house by Meredith, Walter sinks into the abyss and attempts suicide. He fails, and in an alley dumpster stumbles upon a beaver hand puppet. Adopting an English working class accent, Walter starts to communicate through the beaver, giving the stuffed toy a personality and regaining his ability to function. Things initially look up and Walter moves back home and inspires his company to find success with a new beaver-themed toy. But as Porter starts to get to know Norah's secrets, the beaver puppet fully takes over Walter's life, and his mind is pushed into its darkest corners.

Directed by Foster, The Beaver is a worthwhile exploration of an important subject matter, made more real by Gibson's well publicized battles with alcoholism, manic-depression and public self-destruction. Despite some unnecessary narration that attempts to inject a trace of misplaced humour, for the most part the Kyle Killen script makes interesting choices. Walter's depression is presented as an incapacitating disease, and the hand puppet as an alternative form of communication that helps to separate Walter from himself, allowing him to confront many of his demons. The parallel story of Porter doing his best to escape his father, struggling with his own creeping black clouds and discovering that even popular kids like Norah have a lot to hide, adds a creditable multi-generational dimension to the drama.

While the first two thirds of the film are assured, the final act starts to unravel. Meredith is too demanding, the beaver is too controlling, Porter's world disintegrates and Norah's issues as a rebel with a sad past hiding in cheerleader clothing are just too convenient. Then Walter and the beaver engage in a battle of wills that barely avoids unintentional comic status, only to be followed by violent plot developments out of the schlocky horror drawer. The film never recovers and defaults to a yawn of an ending.

But despite the film's loss of direction, the performances are consistently good. Mel Gibson dominates as Walter and is exceptional in bringing to life a hand puppet with a unique personality of its own. Foster is believable as a wife struggling to hold herself and her family together in the face of a husband's dissolution, while Anton Yelchin is suitably dour as Porter, wanting any fate other than like father, like son. Jennifer Lawrence, one year before her 2012 breakout in The Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook, gives Norah plenty of depth and personality beyond the standard troubled potential girlfriend role.

A case of an intriguing idea provided with decent execution, The Beaver has a lot of good things to say but not the legs to necessarily walk all the talk.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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