"The Beaver" opens with Walter Black (Mel Gibson), floating in a pool contemplating the end of his life. He's clearly a man of wealth, with a gorgeous home, but there's something deeply disturbed about him. There's no life in his eyes and he looks like a lump of meat floating in the water, instead of a man with anything to live for. Narration, done by Gibson talking about his character in third person, explains that Walter is hopelessly depressed -- and has been for some time. The opening montage shows Walter sleepwalking through his life, hating himself, and even self-flagellating to punish himself for being bad at everything he does. This years-long behavior has torn his family apart, and caused his older son Porter (Anton Yelchin) to lobby his mother Meredith (Jodie Foster) to divorce Walter and exile him from the family. A younger brother, Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), doesn't want his father to go. Walter has no idea what he's doing in life, at home or at work (where he's the Owner/CEO of a toy company he inherited from his father...a company Walter has seemingly run into the ground for the last few years, as depression consumed him and caused him to make disastrous decisions).
It's the day before Meredith kicks Walter out of the family's house and begins divorce proceedings against him. Walter packs up his things, slowly, with great sadness, and puts them into his car, en route to a hotel. Walter stops at a liquor store and loads up on more bottles of booze than his trunk can hold; so he decides to chuck much of his personal belongings into a dumpster behind the store, instead of giving up any of the liquor. In the dumpster, Walter finds a dirty, discarded stuffed beaver puppet (for those thinking like 12-year olds and imagining a film directed by and starring Jodie Foster that's called "The Beaver" was about something else, this moment clarifies the beaver in question resoundingly).
Walter picks up the puppet and takes it with him back to the hotel, where he decides to kill himself by hanging from the shower curtain rod by one of his neckties. The rod collapses and Walter crumples to the floor, upset with himself that he can't do anything right -- even killing himself. He then decides to jump off the hotel room's balcony to end his life. While he's on this precipice, the beaver puppet begins speaking to Walter in a cockney British accent. Walter is startled, falls backwards into the hotel room, and ends up knocking the television from the dresser onto his head, rendering him unconscious for a spell.
When Walter awakens, he begins a series of extended therapy sessions with "The Beaver", who never receives a proper name. Walter appears to have been in therapy for years -- with actual human, living and breathing psychiatrists -- but none of them were able to help him. "The Beaver" is played as a manifestation of some part of Walter that's been listening to all this therapy and is now front and center trying a last ditch effort to force Walter to get it together. Walter decides to abdicate all decision-making in his life and do whatever "The Beaver" tells him to do in order to save his business and more importantly prevent the divorce and reconcile with his family.
"The Beaver" tells Walter to pick his son Henry up from school, so he does. This causes Meredith alarm since Walter is not supposed to do this, and Meredith is upset with the school for giving Henry to Walter. She's panicked, believing Walter to be unstable and worried Henry is in danger but drives home to find Henry and Walter working in the garage with wood shop tools, making something together. Henry is having a marvelous time with his father, and is delighted by the playfulness of the beaver puppet that Walter's "playing" with. Meredith quickly stops being mad and is happy that Henry is not only safe but is having fun with his father. She humors the puppetry antics because she believes it's all just for Henry's benefit and doesn't fully understand what's going on with Walter yet. Henry asks if Walter can stay for dinner and Meredith agrees he can.
The family's older son, Porter, is revealed to be the driving force behind this push for divorce, as Porter is humiliated by and enraged at Walter for his mental illness. Porter is a very smart boy who is a superb writer -- so much so that he created a business at his high school selling term papers, which he actually writes in the voice of the client paying him to do their work for them (this way, none of his papers can be Googled to reveal they weren't written by the student who bought them...unlike other Internet sites that post papers cheaters can buy). Porter is saving up money from this paper-writing business to go on an epic road trip after high school graduation that will culminate in his arrival at Brown, the Ivy League university that's accepted him for early admission based on his stellar academic performance. Porter plans to stop at various historic places on this trip, including those marred by tragedy, such as the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and other sites associated with upheaval and strong emotions. Porter calls this a trip of self-discovery, and clearly has soaked up a lot of therapy through the years as he's a very introspective person very obsessed with his personal identity. There's a wall in his room that's devoted to Post-Its that he maintains chronicling all the things he hates about his father...with a corresponding section for the traits he hates about himself that he blames on his father. Throughout the film, Porter adds new items to both columns, obsessed with the project like it's a geometric proof he's building mounting evidence for, to prove how terrible his father Walter is and identify the personal traits he "inherited" from Walter that he wants to destroy in himself so he won't turn out like Walter. Another wall in his room is used by Porter to smash his head into -- in very loud and disturbing bouts where Porter punishes himself with this violence for being Walter's son.
Meredith and Walter (and "The Beaver") are making dinner and Meredith is actually delighted to see Walter so animated, and helping around the house. Meredith is a roller coaster designer who works from home. She is a very by-the-books, regimented, and put-together person with a clear engineer's mindset. It's obvious she loves Walter very much and is so taken by his performance with "The Beaver" that she must see a lot in him that night that reminds her of the man she fell in love with and married. Henry is excited to have his parents together again like that and is over the moon. Porter, however, comes home and is angry that Meredith has allowed Walter back inside and is worried she is changing her mind and will take Walter back. He stomps off to his room, to work on his wall chart and pound his head against the dry wall, as he's formed a habit of doing.
"The Beaver" tells Walter what he needs to do to get the toy company back on track towards profits. Cherry Jones plays Walter's second in command at work, the Vice President (who is never named in the film, but Jones plays her a lot like the character Allison Taylor, President of the United States, on the last two seasons of 24). Everyone at work stares at Walter and the puppet, as Walter goes through the building telling everyone that he has a big announcement to make that will get the company back on track. Jones thinks this means Walter will relinquish the CEO spot to her, so she can take over the company. She is played as a very loving and kind person who must have been with the company for years, and has watched Walter run it into the ground..so she is not motivated by ambition or self-interest, but just wants to save the business and all those jobs. Walter eventually calls a company-wide meeting and tells everyone that they have a choice: "The Beaver" is going to be the new CEO and will deliver a record turn-around in profits very soon, but the employees must do whatever "The Beaver" says and accept its leadership without question, addressing "The Beaver" as a person and ignoring Walter. If employees do not feel like working under this scenario, they are free to leave and will be given a stellar severance package with glowing recommendations for other jobs. Everyone is sceptical, but assume Walter is under some sort of new psychiatric therapy that requires this unorthodox behavior. They all support him 100%, including Jones, and get to work thinking about what new and revolutionary toy they can create to save the company and put it back in the black.
Meanwhile, Porter's paper-writing business brings him to the attention of Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), who appears to be the most perfect girl at school. She's the valedictorian, is beautiful and popular, and has seemingly never spoken to Porter before. However, she's stymied by the valedictory speech she must deliver at the end of the school year and admits to Porter that she just went through the motions of being president of different clubs and accumulating extra curricular activities just so she could have a solid resume for applying to college. She doesn't really know who she is, or why she did any of the things she did, aside from doing them to seem like she was the best and brightest to get into the Ivy League. Porter charges her $1,000 to write her valedictory speech and asks her for papers she's written in the past, as well as biographical information, so that he can get inside her head and write the speech in her voice. Porter intends to deliver a speech that will meet the expectations of what teachers, students, and parents expect from Norah, and make it sound like it's come from Norah herself and not a speechwriter. The two begin working on this project, with Norah at first being 100% interested in just the speech while Porter appears from the beginning more interested in getting to know Norah than he is in the money he's earning.
Walter is now making regular visits to the family's home, spending a lot of time with Henry, who loves the attention. Walter and Henry build a toy woodworking kit so that Henry can play with this toy in the wood shop while Walter operates the real power tools. This is because Walter caught Henry trying to operate the power tools alone, which is dangerous for him. The Beaver prods Walter to take this idea to his toy company for mass-production.
Walter does what The Beaver says and rushes the woodworking kit, along with a toy beaver mascot, into development. Jones realizes there is great potential from this simple toy, as the company could keep rolling out additional products to complement it every quarter indefinitely. It is just the sort of brand the company needed to get back on top, and everyone is ordered to drop whatever other projects they were working on to get this ready to present at a big toy fair coming up soon. Walter and "The Beaver" then begin doing promotional junkets to sell the new toy.
Meredith wants Walter back in the family now, because she loves seeing his old spark back, but starts getting jealous of "The Beaver", particularly when Walter starts refusing to take the puppet off his hand -- ever. Walter showers with it. Eats with it. And he even wears it to bed when Meredith wants Walter to resume marital relations with her (treating The Beaver like he's the third member of a threesome, which Meredith finds bizarre). A course for confrontation is then set between Meredith and The Beaver, since she starts to feel like there are three people in their marriage.
Porter and Norah get closer, and she starts to reveal a secret morose self to Porter that she hides from everyone else. One night at her house Norah takes Porter upstairs to the attic where she has her paintings displayed --- these are paintings that her mother forces her to hide from the world because they are too personal and sad, and thus would destroy the image Norah's carefully crafted of the perfect, happy, overachiever. Norah uses art to express her internal sadness over the loss of her brother, who died tragically a few years before. Norah got busted for spraying graffiti onto buildings in a form of rebellion after her brother died, and Norah's mother has been insanely overprotective and draconian towards Norah ever since...because she wants to make sure her daughter gets into a good Ivy League school and has a perfect life with no more blemishes like the graffiti bust. Porter loves Norah's art and stores her graffiti-artist past away in his memory bank for future use.
Walter's toy wood shop kit becomes a smash hit for the toy company. Sales shoot through the roof as the kit takes on the fab-status of Beanie Babies or Cabbage Patch Kids, due largely to the fact that Walter insists on letting "The Beaver" do all the press himself to sell the toys. The media can't get enough of this novelty, with Walter doing a nonstop barrage of morning talk shows, radio bits, etc. Some in the media question Walter's sanity, especially those in the radio business, since no one can see the puppet yet Walter brings the puppet to the stations and insists on moving him around and treating him like he's a person. Walter even appears on The Today Show with Matt Lauer, where Lauer presses him to take off the puppet but Walter refuses. It's clear there is a problem here, but Walter's appearing on magazine covers like Newsweek and TIME and the beaver woodworking kits are flying off the shelves of all the big toy stores. Jones is happy the company is back in the black, but remains worried about Walter.
Everything comes to a head when Porter and Norah get arrested for graffiti-tagging an old warehouse, in what was supposed to be a romantic date dreamed up by Porter. He wanted Norah to be able to graffiti again, and brought her to a wall in what looked like a deserted part of town, with a wide array of spray paints so she could create a tribute wall to her brother. Porter started spraying the wall with an "RIP" tag to the deceased brother, not long before the police came to arrest them. Norah is mortified at being arrested and her parents are furious with her, especially her controlling mother. Porter is ashamed when his own parents come to the police station and Norah and her family see that Walter is carrying the puppet. They tell Norah not to see Porter any more and make remarks about not wanting her around this unbalanced family. Porter hates his father more than ever, and at this point pounds his head so far into the wall that he actually breaks through to the outside and can see through the wall like it's a new window in his room.
The whole family's on edge, just as Walter and Meredith's anniversary arrives and Meredith demands a nice evening out -- WITHOUT the beaver puppet. Walter attempts to do this for Meredith, but by now "The Beaver" has become so much a part of Walter's identity that he can't bear to spend even one meal out without the puppet. He just can't exist without The Beaver there advising him and speaking for him. Meredith is angry with Walter because at this point she realizes that he's been lying about being under the care of a psychiatrist...and that no doctor initiated this "beaver therapy". She figures out that this all came from Walter's imagination and that Walter is very, very sick and needs to be in the hospital.
Porter suffers another major blow when one of the students he wrote papers for turns him into the principal, since this boy's grandmother realized his papers had improved too much and that he was suddenly sounding like a different person in his writing. Porter gets severely disciplined at school and his business collapses. Brown subsequently sends him a letter advising him his early admission has been withdrawn because of the circumstances and Porter now has no idea what he is going to do with his life.
Walter is so rattled at this point that he starts to realize he's been too reliant on "The Beaver" so he heads into the workshop to create a new project with the wood. He builds a small coffin...for the puppet. But instead of taking the puppet off, Walter uses a saw to cut off his hand and forearm and bury that in the coffin with the puppet. It's not a suicide attempt, but rather an attempt to rid himself of "The Beaver", since the puppet had grafted itself onto his identity in such a way that he felt he had to cut off part of his own flesh to get rid of it completely.
Walter is rushed to the hospital, where his family ultimately assembles to rally around him as doctors try to save his life, since he lost so much blood in the wood shop.
Porter and Norah eventually reconcile, with Norah staging an elaborate stunt as an apology to him. She hung canvas on the building from earlier in the film and then graffiti-sprayed a giant tribute mural to her brother, making it all about life and music and happy things instead of the sorrow she felt before. The canvas could then be peeled off the wall and reinstalled somewhere else...Porter likes it so much he puts the canvas pieces up on his walls in his room, covering the hole that he made and the wall where he listed everything he hated about his father and himself. Porter uses the wall as inspiration for Norah's valedictory speech, which he finishes for her on time. At the ceremony, Norah starts to deliver it, but then admits to hiring someone to write it for her and talks instead about how much effort she put into padding her college resume instead of getting to know who she was or why she was doing any of the things she was so pressed to achieve. The speech is very well received as it came from her heart.
Porter forgives his father and decides to stop pushing Meredith to divorce him. Walter gives up control of the company to Jones, who spends most of her day in damage control mode trying to make the public forget Walter's breakdown and "accident" with the puppet. Shots of Beaver toys on the 50% off remainder bin at toy stores establish that the media had a field day with Walter's arm/puppet/coffin episode and that the toy company's reputation is in ruins. Walter doesn't really seem to care at all about the business anymore and instead is focusing on being with his family, who is indeed around him, including Porter.
Walter gets a mechanical hand and forearm and tries to put himself and his life back together.
The movie ends with the entire family riding a roller coaster at an amusement park somewhere. It's both a nod to Meredith designing these rides, and also the emotional roller coaster the family has been on dealing with Walter's mental illness and its impact on the family.
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