There was a moment during the first public screening of her new film, "The Beaver," when Jodie Foster finally felt she could exhale. The drama, starring Mel Gibson as a depressed father who reinvents himself with the help of a furry hand puppet, deals with tough subject matter that is uncomfortably close its star's very public meltdown. After a mostly comic first hour, Gibson's character reveals the depth of his depression and anger by turning his rage against himself.
"There's one scene in the movie where it takes this turn and where Mel hits himself, and if people are laughing there, then we're like, 'This is bad. This is not good,' " Foster said in an interview the morning after "The Beaver's" sold-out premiere at the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival here this week. "But the audience made the shift, they came along."
In a sold-out, 1,200-seat theater, the famously enthusiastic festival crowd gave Foster a warm welcome, and the film a boost on its difficult road to general release.
Foster, who directs and costars as Gibson's wife, said she is cognizant of the wariness or even hostility many moviegoers may harbor toward her friend Gibson, but she defended him.
"People have struggles in life," Foster said. "Most of us don't have ours expressed on the Internet. I actually don't feel his struggles are that unusual. People say nasty things to cops when they're drunk. Do I think he's made mistakes or do I think he's made mistakes handling his mistakes? Absolutely. He has been through a tornado of crisis in his life and all I wish for him is that he has the strength to come out on the other side. Whatever happens as a consequence of his actions, he'll have to accept that. If nobody ever sees a film of his again, then he'll have to accept that. But if you've ever loved anybody that has an alcohol problem, if you've ever loved anybody that has troubles, that's not the biggest problem that they have. Their biggest problem is their own personal journey and their journey with their families."
Gibson's public struggles began when he was pulled over for driving under the influence of alcohol in 2006 and delivered an anti-Semitic tirade. His problems escalated when a series of racist and threatening voice mails he had left his ex-girlfriend were made public last summer, and continued last week when he pleaded no contest to charges of domestic battery related to a January 2010 altercation. Gibson, 55, was sentenced to three years' probation and ordered to stay away from his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva.
As Gibson's personal troubles heightened, Summit Entertainment delayed until May 20 the release of "The Beaver," which was shot in 2009.
"The movie would not have been the topic of discussion had we brought it to market last year, and we wanted the movie to be the topic of discussion," said Summit CEO Rob Friedman.
The morning after the film's first public screening at the festival, Friedman said he was pleased by the audience response.
""The fact that they laughed at the beginning and as it had more serious overtones they moved into that emotional state was very gratifying," he said.
Foster prefaced the screening by telling the audience: "This is not a comedy." But "The Beaver" drew many laughs from the SXSW attendees, most for intentionally funny scenes, as when Gibson showers and irons a shirt with the Beaver puppet on his hand, but at least once for a scene that was unintentionally evocative of the star's personal problems -- when his character carries a box of liquor bottles.
Before the film, many expressed reservations about Gibson. "I'm Jewish, so that was something I really was weighing before coming out," said Lainey Melnick, a commissioner for emergency services in Austin and a volunteer at the festival. "I used to love his work, but now it's difficult for me to separate the two. I do think he's a fabulous actor. In a way I'm sort of glad he's not here so I don't have to deal with that."
After the film ended, Melnick was crying. "It was really beautiful," she said. "I could put all that aside and was watching the story."
Sandy Schwartz, who was serving as a volunteer usher for the night, said she would never pay for a ticket to a Gibson movie. "He's just generally not a nice person," Schwartz said. "Why do people continue to support him?"
But after the credits rolled, Schwartz's position had softened. She seemed to credit Gibson with making the same kind of transformation as his character in the film, although the actor has made no public statement of remorse about the threatening voice mails or domestic battery case, and his attorney has repeatedly maintained Gibson's innocence. "I thought maybe this was his story," Schwartz said
Foster said the chance to explore a character in spiritual crises drew her to the film. "We all use things to get through our neurotic wounds intact," she said. "Maybe you become someone who intellectualizes pain. Well, that survival tool eventually is going to start creating its own wounds."
Before the screening, some exhibitors who had not yet seen the film expressed concern about it.
"You've got this very high-concept movie with a star who has had some real issues in the last year," said Tom Stephenson, CEO of Rave Motion Pictures, which owns about 1,000 movie screens in 20 states. "People are worried about that combination. But if the movie gets really good early reviews or word of mouth, people might go see it in spite of the controversy."
Gibson is featured prominently in the trailer and the poster, and Friedman said the actor may participate in publicity for the film's release.
"As he feels comfortable to support the film, we would of course support that," Friedman said. "Mel's performance is extraordinary."
Foster had flown in from the Paris set of the Roman Polanski film "Carnage" and was wearing sunglasses even at night due to what she said was an illness. Gibson did not attend.
Another prong of the marketing strategy involves a social action campaign promoting awareness of depression and mental health organized by Participant Media, a partner on the film.
"For me it's a very personal film," Foster told the audience in Austin. "It has to do with all of my struggles and what I think about obsessively and where I am at this particular point in my life. We've all had these struggles and the only way to get through it is to know you're not alone."