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the-beaver-w1280Stand aside Oprah, Jodie Foster must be the most powerful woman in Hollywood, possibly in all the world. Not only did she get a difficult script, long thought to be brilliant but unfilmable, to the big screen but then got the movie released in spite of the disgraceful shenanigans of her star Mel Gibson. Gibson’s recent notoriety threatened to derail “the Beaver”—three release dates have come and gone—but Foster fostered on, and the film, about a depressed man who communicates through a beaver puppet hits theatres this weekend.

Not since Anthony Hopkins grappled with a vicious ventriloquist dummy in “Magic” has a puppet been such an effective dramatic device.

Gibson plays Walter Black, a man crippled by depression. His business and marriage have fallen apart, but after a failed suicide attempt he discovers an unconventional form of therapy. He finds a furry brown beaver puppet in a dumpster, which becomes his alternate personality; his only form of communication with the outside world. The change in Walter is miraculous; unfortunately one person’s miracle is nothing more than another person’s puppet and Walter’s newfound state of wellbeing isn’t appreciated by everyone.

Of course the big question here is: Will audiences be able to put aside Gibson’s recent cycle of loopy, offensive behavior and sit back and enjoy the film? If they can judge the art and not the artist they’ll find much to like here, but if not “The Beaver” will wither and die because Gibson (and his hand puppet) hogs the spotlight.

In light of all the well deserved bad press he’s received lately it’s hard to remember that once Gibson was a top box office draw and a charismatic screen presence. The bad press hasn’t diminished that. What it may have done is add a few worry lines to his face which are very effective reminders of Walter’s state of mind.

Gibson is very good, but he doesn’t steal the show. A side story to the puppet’s spiritual journey comes from Porter (Anton Yelchin), Walter’s eldest son. Porter is struggling not to be like his dad, and discovers a way out when he meets and falls for Norah (Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence), a pretty cheerleader with a perfect GPA but an imperfect life. Both hand in understated but effective performances, high on naturalism, which ground the more fanciful aspects of the story.

“The Beaver,” despite some funny visuals in the trailer is not a comedy. It is a dark exploration of mental illness and its effect on the family unit. Director Foster (as opposed to star Foster; she plays Walter’s wife) occasionally struggles with tone—it’s hard not to when your star speaks with a cockney accent through an ever present Beaver puppet—but in the end presents a unique and compelling look at a subject the movies don’t usually approach.

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