‘The Beaver’

Ken Regan/Summit Entertainment

Jodie Foster’s on-target dramedy transcends its real-world baggage.

A risky bet that pays off solidly, Jodie Foster’s The Beaver survives its life/art parallels to deliver a hopeful portrait of mental illness that, while quirky, is serious and sensitive. Despite obvious hurdles, with smart marketing, it could connect with a wide audience.

Those echoes of Mel Gibson’s well-publicized breakdowns are impossible to ignore in an opening sequence introducing us to his character, Walter Black, who appears floating in a pool, arms outstretched like Christ’s. A few shots later, we see this “hopelessly depressed man,” who has tried everything to remedy his condition, flagellating himself like a Catholic penitent.

Whether intentional or not, this front-and-center reminder works almost as an inoculation to viewers for whom controversy might be a distraction from drama: Having put it out there frankly (much as the protagonist will soon do — in more outlandish ways —with his own issues), the movie kills a bit of our morbid curiosity; our awareness that this depressed character is being played by a troubled actor never vanishes, but it is allowed to inform the story at hand.

Introducing the film’s debut at SXSW, Foster warned that it is not a comedy. But Beaver starts firmly in that mode, even using upbeat music (Marcelo Zarvos’ bouncier version of Astor Piazzola’s moody tangonuevo) and slapstick to turn Walter’s suicide attempt — on the eve of his being kicked out by a wife (Foster) who can’t accept his yearslong hopelessness — into an occasion for laughs.

The breakthrough Walter has after that attempt is also treated lightly, though it’s dead serious for the character: He begins dealing with the world through a beaver puppet he rescued from the garbage, having come to the conclusion that his own psyche is so irreparable he must “blow it up” and start over again.

He returns home and to work, dealing with people not directly but through the Beaver, who speaks with a cockney accent and shows aplomb with situations that have stymied Walter for years. The readiness with which most people accept this strategy (which Walter presents as a legit psychological therapy, invented to distance himself from his pain) is believable because it works so well for him — and Foster stages shots that deftly bring the fuzzy animal to life, jostling with Gibson in the frame and meeting the camera’s gaze to help us see him as Walter does.

Foster and the script (Kyle Killen’s first feature) continue to earn nonmocking laughs with the scenario, sometimes simultaneously planting seeds of problems to come — as when husband and wife consummate their reunion with a funny but troubling puppet threesome.

The tone takes a dark turn when Foster’s Meredith, impatient with the “therapy,” insists on seeing her husband sans Beaver for their anniversary dinner. Exposed and frightened, Walter breaks down. Gibson, hyperventilating and with eyes darting in panic, offers a more affecting, less romantically dramatic collapse than in earlier film roles — and he continues to underplay this state of mind (darting eyes aside) as the action grows progressively darker.

Walter’s suffering is mirrored by that of his older son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), who, unlike a younger son who embraces Dad’s new friend, is ashamed of his father’s illness and pained by similarities he sees in himself. A subplot in which Porter is hired to write a speech for the class valedictorian — a seemingly perfect girl (Jennifer Lawrence) suffering her own traumas — looks at first like a straightforward romantic thread but proves to be a poignant reiteration of the movie’s themes and culminates, a bit surprisingly, in the film’s emotional payoff.

It’s easy to imagine a less gifted filmmaker producing a train wreck of a film using an identical script — exaggerating the highs, compartmentalizing the lows and casting a mawkish eye on everything from Walter’s youngest child to his ever-present suffering. Foster finds the script’s subtleties and grounds the film with just enough pain to make it work. Viewers who can shake off tabloid pre-occupations as they settle into the film will be surprised by a picture that (in a way reminiscent of Lars and the Real Girl) turns a crazy-sounding premise into something moving and sane.

Venue South by Southwest (in limited release Friday, May 6)
Cast Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence
Director Jodie Foster
Producers Steve Golin, Keith Redmon, Ann Ruark
Rated PG-13