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“The Beaver” Damns the American Sitcom Family With a Very Special (Major Depressive) Episode

"The Beaver" Damns the American Sitcom Family With a Very Special (Major Depressive) Episode

This review was originally published May 5, 2011. It is being reposted for the home video release.

“I hope you don’t mind the title,” Jodie Foster said as she introduced her latest at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater last night. “I love it.”

The director/co-star of “The Beaver” may love her new film’s name, and quite possibly is embracing all the puns it has inspired (“it’s just so tempting to say something dirty,” she said at one point during last night’s Q&A), but I can’t seem to find her true reason for keeping it exactly as screenwriter Kyke Killen intended. Other than having a fun ring to it and the fact that the double entendres have helped in its publicity, the title could just as easily be “The Lion” or “The Donkey,” depending on how you view the function of the animal puppet employed by Mel Gibson’s character, Walter. But it comes across clearly necessary once you see the film, not only for whatever metaphors you associate with the wood-chopping beast (rebuilding a life, damming the troubled waters, etc.), but also for its slight reference to “Leave it to Beaver.” Foster’s film is a dysfunctional family drama on par with “American Beauty,” “The Ice Storm” and “Ordinary People” (all recognized by her as minor inspirations), so a connection to the “perfect family” of yore is meaningful. Apparently Killen’s script also involved a clip from “Growing Pains,” but Foster switched that out for the “Kung Fu” scene that appears instead. Oops.

Might there be some significance, also, to the mention of “Grandpa Jerry”? As in Jerry Mathers, who played the Beaver in both the original “Leave it to Beaver” sitcom and its 1980s sequel/spin-off? It’s a long shot, but regardless, that is the name of Walter’s father, a depressed businessman who killed himself many years ago (it’s also the name of the company the father began and which Walter heads). Now Walter is in the same boat, sinking with seemingly incurable mental issues and also suicidal. And the cycle promises to continue in the future life of his son Porter (Anton Yelchin — who has often struck me as a Fred Tate type even before playing Foster’s genius son here). As Foster noted in the Q&A, the film deals equally in the real issue of inheriting depression (and other mental illnesses) and the notion of people fearing they’ll turn into their parents. Many elements of “Still the Beaver”/”The New Leave It to Beaver” series dealt with that idea that apples don’t fall far from the tree, though it also hinted at changes in family norms by having the grown-up “Beav'” wind up a divorced and single parent (albeit one with a strong external family support system).

For all the television watched by characters in “The Beaver,” I’m kind of disappointed it’s only that reflexively used 70s show (which Foster appeared on in her youth) and a few talk shows (Walter and The Beaver end up appearing on both “The Today Show” and “The Daily Show,” the latter of which is seen regularly on TVs beforehand) — not to mention the radio program that makes a joke either ignorant of or winking at the popular old Edgar Bergen show — because the film has kind of a “very special episode” vibe (Foster would prefers to think of the film as a fable, which is comparable), complete with a barely noticeable PSA printed within the end credits telling us to learn more about depression at the film’s TakePart page.

So ultimately it’s almost the sort of self-help propaganda seemingly being rejected for half the movie. And I think it therefore works better as a precisely scripted story about how we all need expression, some kind of outlet for both our creativity and our pain — you know, because if we try to hold back, the dam could break and be a worse mess than you (like Walter) started with. Multiple characters have trouble with direct communication. Walter speaks through the puppet, obviously (literally, to bring the show back in, Wally leaves it to the Beaver…to do the talking). Porter, who ghost-writes papers for other kids for money, speaks through the voices of those students he cheats for (and they in turn speak through his words). Meredith (Foster) uses Skype in her work, not that this video chat concept is dealt with at all narratively. And Norah (Jennifer Lawrence) shows the weird sides of her personality best through photo-text messages, so as to hide this true self from classmates in the high school halls.

But the film definitely has nothing against filtered expression since art, like the graffiti of Norah and the carpentry of little Jared (Riley Thomas Stewart), is celebrated as much as Walter’s puppetry is eventually damned. There is indeed something to the way ventriloquism and puppetry in general can be used by and for people with social difficulties (see the new documentary “Dumbstruck” for more on that in a positive sense, or an episode of “My Strange Addiction” for the negative take), yet it’s the attempt at being entirely represented by something you’re not that is unacceptable. Walter expresses himself through The Beaver, but he also hides behind it, and both Porter and the cheaters who pay him are more about lying than expressing.

This all comes around back to the idea of the sitcom family, which has in the past even been hidden behind a puppet character. Without the title alien, “ALF” would just be another “Growing Pains” type show, but he keeps it from being too vanilla, too stale, and he also often functions as a unifying element for the family and its problems, yet he’s also more often the impetus of their drama as well as a means for the show to use him in circumstances of social problems rather than having the family members themselves involved (or, he’s at least a Tocquevillian outsider able to comment on the domestic issues from the perspective of a foreign visitor). Actually, I’m probably giving the writers of “ALF” more credit than they deserve, and I think Killen is probably trying to do more of what I (and maybe he) wishes that show had actually done.

The puppet-sitcom parody “Skank,” a regular skit on “The Ben Stiller Show,” is a sort of link between “ALF” and “The Beaver,” and I could have sworn there was something else that relates (am I faintly recalling another skit? Did “Greg the Bunny” ever involve a family?). But I bet it’s the original script, which probably had flaws here and there, that made for a more pointed satirical thesis about TV, its propagandized family values and other such falsities, and overall ideas of speaking through certain masks of communication systems (you could almost say “The Daily Show” is therefore as fitting as “Growing Pains,” in this regard, and not just because I’m also slightly reminded of “Death to Smoochy”). Through Foster’s filtering, it’s only half as powerful as it could have been.

“The Beaver” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Recommended If You Like: “Little Man Tate”; “American Beauty”; “What Women Want”

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