Bad Beaver, Good Elmo: Five Final Takeaways from SXSW

Not-So-Nice “Beaver:” Mel Gibson Sticks His Hand Up a Mess

The first sign that something is amiss in The Beaver came in director Jodie Foster’s introduction. At the film’s South By Southwest world premiere in Austin, she warned a packed theater that what they were about to watch was not a comedy. Whatever nuances she wanted the audience to see, they sure weren’t found in Mel Gibson’s unsubtle performance as a depressed man who finds refuge in a beaver puppet. Too bad, because the film is a potentially tantalizing mixture of Hollywood star power and weird, weird subject matter. It could almost have succeeded as a cult favorite but it strives too hard for broad appeal, making its case for “family drama” as methodically as a Powerpoint presentation. Here is the depressed man drunk in a hotel room; here is his son who doesn’t want to be like him; here is the overworked wife at the end of her rope, etc. No wonder the audience ignored Foster’s warning and yucked it up all the way through.

While The Beaver suffers from identity crises in both its character and genre, Miranda July’s The Future focuses neatly on two people at a crossroads in their relationship. More like a sequence of vignettes than a traditional narrative, the film depicts a month in the life of Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) before they take the next step together: adopting a cat. The upcoming adoption produces anxieties that they deal with in some good and some very bad ways. July’s artistic background is threaded through the film nicely in the form of dances, beautifully arranged photography and the cat’s ethereal presence. The film is funny without trying to be, and is as moving as a poem.

“Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey”

Also moving, if not as poetic, is Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, about the creator of one of Sesame Street’s most celebrated characters. Kevin Clash was a kid from from working-class Baltimore who broke into the insular world of puppeteering – and the even more closed society of television children’s shows – through the force of his own passion. Director Constance Marks and her team dug up an amazing amount of archival material to tell the story of how Clash slowly moved up the ranks until he finally got a big league break with his idol Jim Henson. As an added bonus at the screening, the little red guy showed up with Clash in hand (or was it vice versa?), hugging people and letting them fulfill their dreams of tickling the real Elmo.

If the one-word summary of Being Elmo is an unequivocal Yes!, the synopsis to Kumaré is a halting, self-doubting Hmmm. In this fascinating documentary, director Vikram Gandhi works through his crisis of faith (or is he acting out his resentment toward religion?) by impersonating an Indian Guru and helping/duping people seeking spiritual guidance. In the end, it appears that his intentions are commendable and the net impact of his actions positive. But the moral ambiguity of the film made for a tense post-film Q&A.

“Better This World”

The role of one’s agency and ego when it comes to serving a higher purpose also looms large in Better This World. Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway’s documentary follows two young men who set out to challenge the status quo, meet a charismatic revolutionary and get in way over their heads. After they protest at the 2008 Republican Convention, their beliefs and closest relationships are tested. Galloway and Duane de la Vega get incredible access to the people and paper trail surrounding these events, and reveal serious flaws in the so-called War on Terror. It’s one of those films whose best qualities are best disclosed after everyone has seen it; all I can say is: watch it.

Jane P. Riccobono is a film writer and essayist in San Francisco. She has written for the San Francisco Film Society and other publications.

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