Jodie Foster has been part of film as long as I've been paying attention.  She's eight years older than I am, so by the time I was paying attention to movies at all, she was already working and familiar and established, a regular guest star on every show on TV, it seemed.  I saw her in movies like "Tom Sawyer" and "Bugsy Malone" and "Freaky Friday," and once I got a little bit older, I started seeing her in other films like "Taxi Driver" and "The Little Girl Who Lived Down The Lane" and "Foxes" and "Carny," and she was constantly working with interesting people and on interesting films, and she seemed like an adult from the moment she stepped in front of a camera, no matter how old she was.  Once she started directing, it seemed like a natural step, and "Little Man Tate" is a lovely debut movie, sweet but not sentimental, shot through with deep feeling and a love of performance.  Then four years later, she returned to it with "Home For The Holidays."  And then…

Sixteen years.  That's a huge layoff between movies.  Not by choice, either.  She's had false starts and dead ends.   She's produced movies for other people.  She's acted.  She's stayed involved.  But until now, she's been silent as a director, and her return to the job made its premiere tonight at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas.  It was one of the last two films I saw at the fest, and I did my best to walk into it cold, without any sense of what I was going to see.  I've never watched the trailer for the film, and I saw one poster for it at the Summit offices last year, before Comic-Con.  At that point, Summit seemed very happy with the movie, confident that they had something special on their hands.

There is almost no way for anyone who is remotely media savvy to walk into this without some sort of preconceptions about Mel Gibson.  Many people are so turned off by some of what's been reported about him that they shouldn't even bother seeing the film.  It'll just bother them the whole time, so why go through that?  Some people won't care at all, and it'll just be a movie for them.  And in my case, I certainly had the news about Mel in the back of my mind, but all it did in regards to his work onscreen was make me wonder just how much of what I was watching was real, a way for him to release the genuine pain that seems to have been eating at Gibson for some time now.

In the film, he plays Walter Black, a man who is in the grips of a ferocious depression.  He is paralyzed at home with his wife, his kids, the house itself, and at work, he's just going through the motions.  He is burnt out, hollow, prone to sleeping to fill the empty spaces, and the people in his life have noticed.  There's nothing that seems to get through to him, and very quickly, Walter finds himself thrown out of his house by his long-suffering wife Meredith (Foster), alone in a  hotel room, suicidal as he watches old episodes of "Kung-Fu."  What happens instead of him snuffing himself out is that he almost smashes in his skull with a TV set, and he wakes up with a beaver puppet on his hand, a thick Cockney growl coming from the creature, and he's given a new lease on life.  The Beaver makes him promise that he'll let it run things, and in return, the Beaver promises to fix Walter's life.

And, yes, it's just as bizarre as it sounds.  Mel plays scenes with the Beaver as two very distinct and committed personalities.  Throughout Gibson's career, he has frequently leaned on his ability to channel pain through his performances, and it's because of just how damaged he can convincingly be that the first "Lethal Weapon" took on more soul than it deserved.  Gibson has always been ready and able to tap into something dark and awful, but he's also seemed determined to play the clown instead.  In this film, we finally meet a Mel Gibson who no longer has the ability to play the clown.  It's been beaten out of him.  And when we look into his eyes at the start of the film, this is a man who has been crushed.  This is a man with nothing left inside.  The Beaver is so different than Walter in terms of energy that when Walter starts to disappear for big stretches of the film, at first, it's a relief.  We're happy to have someone else onscreen, someone with real dynamic personality.  The film is structured in a very canny way, convincing you that you're watching one thing before revealing itself as something else.  It trades on your understanding of the basic rhythm of Hollywood formula, and it sneaks in some really sharp punches in ways the audience won't expect.

Walter's oldest son Porter (Anton Yelchin) is furious at his father, and he's acting out in his own ways, saving money so he can try to escape his father completely.  Yelchin has been getting better and better in film after film, and in this and in the Sundance hit "Like Crazy," he jumps to the front of his age group.  He gives a warm, grounded performance here, full of anxiety and heartbreak and bruised hope.  Much of his material is played with Jennifer Lawrence, who is Norah, the school valedictorian who needs clandestine help with her graduation speech.  Lawrence continues to impress as well, and she and Yelchin have a great rapport in both this and "Like Crazy."  If she really did just land the lead in "Hunger Games," they should consider casting Yelchin as her Peeta.  They've got such wonderful charisma with one another, and as powerful a presence as she is onscreen, he never seems to give an inch to her.  I'm not sure that would be the case with most young male leads.  Yelchin projects an intelligence and a decency that makes it very affecting when he's tormented by doubts in this one.  His anger at his father is valid, and there's no easy resolution to their relationship.

Foster and Gibson have appeared together before, and they also have a very familiar way with one another.  There is the weight of shared experience in their work as a married couple, and there is real sorrow in the breaking of that connection.  I found much of the film to be quietly painful, and one of the themes of the movie is how quick fixes for genuine issues like depression are nonsense, and there is no such thing.  In order to make that hurt, Foster works hard as a director to communicate a real sense of loss at the idea of this marriage ending.  Riley Thomas Stewart is the younger son, Henry, and his work with Gibson as both Walter and the Beaver is sweet and genuine and wrenching at times.  Gibson, like many men, is at his best in this film when he is with his son, enjoying the pure pleasure of childhood play.   It's just one beautiful detail in a film that has a number of strong grace notes.

Ultimately, I'm not sure why I walked in under the vague impression that the film was primarily a comedy, but Summit would be smart to make sure they sell the movie as it is… sad and occasionally funny but unflinching as well.  It is not a comedy.  Not really.  There's too much that's too raw, too close to the surface, and Mel's character is right on the edge of giving up, right on the edge of total emotional collapse, and that keeps the stakes fairly high.  "The Beaver" is not a comedy, it's true, but it is a deft exploration of the ways we struggle to express something as ineffable as depression, and the lengths we will endure to save our families.  It is a potent reminder of why jodie Foster should have made more movies by now.  And it is a strong beginning for screenwriter Kyle Killen.

"The Beaver" will be in theaters May 20, 2011.