‘The Beaver’ Debuts at SXSW: Can It Save Mel Gibson's Career?

World premiere of Jodie Foster movie, delayed because of Gibson's troubles, draws raves from SXSW fans

The word out of South By Southwest is that "The Beaver" is good. Very good. So is its star, Mel Gibson.

But will that be enough for moviegoers and the industry to forget about the racist and anti-Semitic rants, and the death threats, and the abusive voicemails?

Could any  movie possibly be good enough to allow fans to welcome back Mel Gibson, movie star?

Jodie Foster and Mel GibsonThose were the questions that hung over Austin's Paramount Theatre on Wednesday night, as the most intriguing film at this year's South by Southwest festival had its world premiere.

Based on initial reactions from those at the packed screening, the answer is yes, "The Beaver" just might accomplish that remarkable feat.

"It is an intensely beautiful movie, and he gives an unbelievable performance," said SXSW filmmaker Sara Terry ("Fambul Tok"), who said the film was the best she'd seen in her five days in Austin.

"It doesn't make you forget all the stupid stuff he said and did," she told TheWrap minutes after the screening ended. "But the people here don't care, because that stuff doesn't take away from the fact that it's an amazing performance."

The SXSW crowd — never known as the toughest audience — agreed, by all reports giving the film a rousing ovation when it ended.

In the Q&A session that followed the screening, director/actor Jodie Foster drew huge applause of her own when she mentioned that the film had been her biggest challenge professionally, but said, "I'm incredibly grateful to have Mel's performance in the film, and I wouldn't change a thing."

In "The Beaver," the third film directed by Foster, Gibson plays a businessman who slips into crippling depression and mental illness, and finds he can only communicate with those around him by using a beaver hand puppet as an alter ego of sorts.

The film's SXSW booking followed months of delays, first as Foster did reshoots and tinkered with the film during the post-production process. Then Summit Entertainment and Participant Media pushed the initial 2010 release into 2011, as the companies struggled to put some distance between the release and moviegoers' memories of the ugliness that landed Gibson in court as his relationship with girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva disintegrated into a messy public battle featuring leaked voicemails and claims of physical abuse.

Everyone got a reminder of that ugliness just last Friday, when Gibson appeared in a Los Angeles courtroom and pleaded no contest to charges of misdemeanor battery, which arose from a fight in which he allegedly struck Grigorieva.

Gibson's plea allowed the actor to maintain his innocence, pay a small fine, do 16 hours of community service and be place on probation for three years. It also cleared the matter before the SXSW premiere of his film.

In a line that stretched for blocks before the screening, some fans said they wanted to see a good movie and didn't care about the controversy, while one woman said, "I want to see crazy Mel."

Added another fan, "I think Charlie Sheen is picking up the assh*** factor in the media these days, so maybe Mel can slip back under the radar until he does something else stupid."

Foster appeared at the screening, but Gibson did not. In the Q&A, the director also drew parallels between Gibson's quest for redemption and the lines from a high-school valedictory address delivered by Jennifer Lawrence near the end of the film.

Mel Gibson"The message is that good and bad things happen, but we get through it when we can connect with someone," said Foster.

Many of those who tweeted reactions to the film agreed with the consensus that its quality makes Gibson's troubles irrelevant to moviegoers. "Foster's 'Beaver' is sad, beautiful, and Gibson delivers," wrote Drew McWeeny from HitFix.

"A big, jokey premise creates small, quiet spaces to examine depression and pain," tweeted James Rocchi of MSN Movies. "It's unique, and I'm not suggesting it's perfect, but parts of it hurt like hell and earn that hurt."

Added Neil Miller of Film School Rejects, "The performance of Mel Gibson in 'The Beaver' is one of those rare, engrossing kind. You simply forget that you're watching someone act."

That's not to suggest that the reaction was unanimously positive. Renn Brown of CHUD.com called the film "a well crafted canvas on which one could project their own depressions and journey, but it doesn't deliver on its own."

And Kate Erbland from the Gordon and the Whale website said the movie "doesn't know what it wants to be and, paired with an unsympathetic main character, steadily grew into a film I hated."

According to a 2010 CBS News/Vanity Fair poll, most moviegoers said they would not take Gibson's behavior into account when deciding whether to see one of his movies.