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Reading the plot description for The Beaver you might think that the film is a light-hearted, Mrs. Doubtfire-esque comedy about a father who tries to reconnect with his family through the help of a puppet on his left arm. While there are a few funny moments, the Jodie Foster-directed film is not a comedy. Instead, it’s a rather serious look at the effect that one person’s depression can have on the people around them, and it’s wonderful.
Balancing a dual-layered story and delivering fantastic performances, The Beaver is really the story of a father and son, the former sick of being himself and the latter doing everything in his power to not end up the same way. The film provides a heartfelt and unflinching look at a condition that millions suffer from both inwardly and outwardly, making you truly care about the characters and their lives.
At the heart of it all is Walter Black, played by Mel Gibson, the devastatingly depressed father of two and owner of a failing toy company. His wife, played by Jodie Foster, tries to be supportive, though she’s all but ready to completely give up. Of his two sons the youngest, Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), feels completely invisible, while his oldest, Porter (Anton Yelchin), despises him to the point that he actively tries to eliminate all of Walter’s personality traits from his own. His family is unable to cope with him anymore, so Walter moves out, only to discover a discarded beaver puppet in a dumpster. Seeing a way to cure himself of his psychological affliction, he puts on the puppet and gives it a personality, allowing it to try and get his life straight.
While Walter’s storyline is what will likely draw audiences in, it’s actually Porter that ends up being the most interesting part of the film, due largely to a terrific turn by Yelchin. While a less skilled actor would have merely made Porter an angst-ridden trope, the young actor brings all of the heart and passion required to make the character original. Furthermore, the chemistry between Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence, who plays a classmate that pays Porter to write her valedictorian speech at graduation. Their relationship never feels forced or clichéd and actually exercises the characters with deep, individual personal histories and depth.
In some ways though, Yelchin is actually too strong, in that he actually manages to overpower the other half of the narrative. Kyle Killen’s script gives Porter a rich and complex story arc, but we spend just as much time with Walter, who isn’t as fully developed. Instead of being able to watch Walter sink into depression, it’s summed up in a few minutes of voice-over narration at the start of the film. From a story standpoint it works, as the device immediately puts the plot in motion, but it’s detrimental from a character standpoint, as we only know Walter as the grumbling, sleepy guy or the dude with the Australian, flat-tailed rodent on his hand. We care about Walter because we see what his condition is doing to his family, but not enough sympathy comes directly from the character. Gibson keeps up his half of the film by putting on a great performance of his own, but one can’t help but wonder what he could have done with more.
Never feeling flashy or preachy, The Beaver is a deep, emotional film about every day issues that we so rarely see. Though one half of the narrative is stuck in the shadow of the other half, it’s more than bright enough to keep everything from plunging in to darkness.