By Karen Valby
Updated March 17, 2011 at 05:01 AM EDT
Credit: Ken Regan

Before tonight’s packed SXSW world premiere of The Beaver, the new Jodie Foster movie starring Mel Gibson, there was an interestingly anxious energy in the air. What would it be like to see Gibson on screen again? Could an audience give themselves over to his portrait of a severely depressed man who copes by communicating with the world with a beaver hand puppet? Or would his ugly tape-recorded voice, which too many indulged in listening to when his rageful phone conversations with ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva went public last year, play as background noise?

Here’s the thing: In the film, Gibson plays a man who hates himself, a flattened, desperate father who has made a wreck of his family (Foster plays his wife; the deeply interesting young actor Anton Yelchin his teenage son). His demons are dark and powerful, and yet the performance is quiet and dear. In some ways, it’s the only role I can imagine inspiring any compassion in audiences for Mel Gibson.

There was a telling little moment in the Q&A that followed the screening. A gentleman asked Jodie Foster to elaborate on her earlier declaration when she introduced the movie that The Beaver was “the biggest struggle of my professional career.” She paused, and then spoke about the tricky job of getting the tone of the film right. Come now, the enormous elephant in the room needs addressing. Finally the gentleman dared wonder if the source of her agita was in fact her star, and asked if she did have any regrets casting him. “I feel incredibly grateful to have Mel’s performance in this movie,” she said firmly. And suddenly a little wave of applause seemed to spread around the room. Whether folks were cheering for Mel Gibson’s performance or for Mel Gibson the human being or simply for Mel Gibson’s loyal friend and director who has always enjoyed enormous audience good will was unclear. “Anyone who’s ever worked with Mel,” Foster continued, “knows he’s the most beloved actor in the film business.” And then, in an unforeseen shout-out, she gave props to her Anna and the King co-star. “The second most beloved is Chow Yun-Fat.”

Towards the end of the Q&A, before she was asked if she was planning to star in a musical like Bugsy Malone again (no), Foster described her intimate connection with the film’s portrait of depression. The story “has to deal with all my struggles and all the things I think about obsessively,” she said. “Life is full of this half comedy, half tragedy. And the only way to get through it is to know you’re not alone.” One has to think that whatever a mess Gibson has made of his life, he must find some genuine comfort in stalwart friends like Foster.

The movie is good, or at least fine, people seemed to agree as they made their way up the crowded aisle. Mel Gibson is good. Sad and moving and good. Whether audiences will have a stomach for him, let alone a film about the drowning ache of depression, let alone a film that involves you explaining to your date that The Beaver refers to a beaver hand puppet, remains to be seen. It’s a hard sell every way around. The movie opens in select cities on May 6, followed by wide release on May 20.