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AUSTIN, Texas — Calling the film “the biggest struggle of my professional career,” Jodie Foster introduced “The Beaver,” her drama starring the troubled Mel Gibson as a depressed father who reinvents himself with the help of a hand puppet, to its first public audience at the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival on Wednesday night in Austin.


“All sorts of stuff happened after the film was finished that threw our release into a crazy pattern,” Foster told the sold-out audience of 1,200 people at the Paramount Theater, alluding to the very public and sordid domestic violence case between Gibson and his ex-girlfriend, a situation that delayed the release of “The Beaver,” filmed in 2009. “I have no regrets about him being in the film.”


Foster, who directed and co-starred in the film, prefaced the screening by saying: “This is not a comedy.” But “The Beaver” drew many laughs from the SXSW audience, most for intentionally funny scenes, as when Gibson showers and irons a shirt with the 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 of box of liquor bottles.


“The Beaver” shifts to a much darker tone in one scene that drew gasps from the crowd.


“What was beautiful about the script was that it has equal levels of lightness and darkness,” said Foster, a longtime friend of Gibson’s who plays his wife in the film. “It was hard to figure out when you go from one to the other.”


SXSW audiences are famously enthusiastic, but before the film, many expressed reservations about Gibson, whose 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.


“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, an Austinite 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. “Maybe there’s redemption and hope for him.”


Prior to the screening, some exhibitors who had not yet seen the film also 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.”


Last month, Summit Entertainment postponed the release of the film from March until May 20. Gibson is featured prominently in the trailer and the poster.


“In the campaign, he is kind of poking fun at himself,” said Mark Young, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. “He’s drawing attention to himself. ‘I know I have messed up, I’m still here, I’m still an actor.’ You could argue that ‘The Beaver’ is a way for Mel to express himself behind a mask.”


“If I was a studio exec, I would be very cautious about using Mel right now,” Young said. “Jodie Foster is a charming-enough and well-respected-enough person that she alone could do the launch of this film.”


That seemed to be Summit’s strategy in SXSW, where Foster attended a cocktail party before the screening. She had flown in Wednesday 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 SXSW, but actor Anton Yelchin, who plays his son in the film, and screenwriter Kyle Killen took the stage with Foster after the screening for a Q&A.


Another prong of the strategy involves a social action campaign promoting awareness of depression and mental health organized by Participant Productions, a partner on the film. At SXSW, Participant is co-hosting a barbecue with the mental health awareness groups To Write Love on Her Arms and the Kristin Brooks Hope Center.


Foster admitted to being nervous before the screening.


“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 life is full of these — half-comedy and half-tragedy — and the only way to get through it is to know you’re not alone. Connection is the one thing that makes life bearable.”

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