The challenge facing Jodie Foster in her return to film directing is a bit of a paradox. It’s been so long since Foster’s heyday starring in movies like Silence of the Lambs or Maverick that it can be easy to forget the enormity of her stardom, making it a little tough to market movies based on her involvement alone. But anonymity remains elusive for the tabloid-averse star. Once you start watching the films she’s directed, it somehow still feels impossible to forget Foster’s work in front of the camera — even when she’s only operating behind it.
What makes a Jodie Foster film? Well, her films are blessedly short, for one — there isn't one over an hour forty-five, and their palatability extends beyond length. Foster doesn’t write her films, but she’s choosy with her scripts — so choosy that she’s only made four films in 25 years (Little Man Tate, Home for the Holidays, The Beaver, and now Money Monster, a timely thriller about the financial crisis starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts, opening this Friday).
Foster’s first film, Little Man Tate, came at the height of her stardom, and Foster plays a lead role as the mother of an intellectually gifted child. For another actor, this would be the chance to direct themselves to greatness, and sure enough, Jodie’s face is all over the poster and promotional materials from the film’s release. But in watching the movie, you see that she has saved all the best material for her young costar Adam Hann-Byrd and her co-lead Dianne Wiest, here playing the child’s counselor, and bit players Celia Weston and the young Harry Connick Jr. are given the room to walk away with scenes wholesale. It’s not that the performances feel uneven, but rather that as a director Foster has the chance to extend the tenderness and specificity of her own acting style into every character. There are a lot of ways to stage a scene in which a frat bro explains to a child that he’d rather have sex than hang out with a 10-year-old, but it’s hard to imagine that most filmmakers would direct Connick Jr. to play the scene with the gentle emotional intelligence he shows in Little Man Tate.
It’s a quirk of Foster’s films that though she spent most of her life in elite environments — first as a child star, then as a student, and finally as a top-shelf actress proper — her choices as a filmmaker are persistently oriented toward the problems of regular people. The feelings and experiences of families and the working class are sometimes focuses in her acting career, where her best performances come in films like Taxi Driver or The Accused, but they outright dominate the movies she’s directed. Little Man Tate was the story of what happens to a mother and child when the child’s needs push him past her world as a waitress, and she followed it up with the equally delicate family drama Home for the Holidays, which by itself is proof that while there aren’t many great Thanksgiving movies, really you only need one.
Home for the Holidays keeps the emotional complexity of Little Man Tate, but it does away with external goals or traditional plot, instead zeroing in on the relationships in the Larson family. The visit we watch is not the first trip home Claudia Larson has taken, nor will it be her last, and the beauty of the movie is the natural way it replicates the rhythms and habits we fall into with family. The turkey is overcooked, and there’s no carving knife. Claudia and her brother Tommy are close — they play pranks on each other, they share secrets, they leave voice messages and then apologize in person for leaving voice messages. Their closeness alienates their sister Joanne, the conservative one, the one with the traditional family, the one who can’t roll with the jokes. Claudia’s mom, Adele, worries about the kids she barely gets a chance to see, Claudia’s dad, Henry, watches home movies amazed that he’s the man from the videos. The movie explores the problems of keeping secrets from people who know you well enough to anticipate what you’re not ready to communicate — whether it’s that you’ve been fired or that you’ve gotten married. In the Larson family, conversations start and stop before anyone has a chance to say what they actually mean, and once you do come to the conversations that matter, everything gets said all at once — no elegance, no real resolution. But Foster leaves the film with a segment that starts with a title card reading “The Point,” playing Henry’s reel of Larson family home movies — all of the private moments the characters couldn’t quite share with each other, perfectly captured by the camera, no translation necessary.
Though she’s done some laudable work directing TV, most notably the episode of Orange Is the New Black exploring the transition of Laverne Cox’s Sophia, Foster waited 15 years to direct a movie that would follow Home for the Holidays. The result was The Beaver — the elephant in the room in most discussions of Foster’s work as a film director. Made from a Black List script in 2011, the movie follows Walter, played by road-rage-era Mel Gibson, as he attempts to work through a lifetime of anger and pain by communicating in third person through a beaver hand puppet. In a lot of ways, The Beaver literalizes what Foster observed about family dynamics through performance and behaviors in Little Man Tate and Home for the Holidays, turning familial disconnect into a full-blown plot as Walter’s beaver hand puppet becomes a distancing tool for him to be able to say the things that characters like the Tates or the Larsons talk around.
We’re introduced to the device with the beaver looking right into the camera. We assume Walter’s perspective as he realizes the potential of hearing his own inner voice expressed to him through an outside object. But for the rest of the film, we observe Walter as other people see him — as Mel Gibson talking about himself in the third person with a hand puppet. Foster’s choice to move between an internal and external experience of Walter’s self-prescribed therapy is both ambitious and jarring, and if people within the movie question whether they can take Walter seriously, The Beaver sometimes makes it hard not to ask whether we can take The Beaver seriously. But while The Beaver is a more jagged pill than either Little Man Tate or Home for the Holidays, its aggressiveness still feels true to the Jodie who once acted in movies like Nell, or, maybe more relevantly, Elysium. It’s Weird Jodie at work — funky-accent Jodie, too-intense Jodie, maybe slightly-stuck-in-her-head Jodie, but it’s Jodie all the same.
And maybe stuck-in-her-head Jodie is just Jodie, plain and simple. Three years ago, when she accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes, much of the press around her speech focused on how it only indirectly addressed her sexuality after years of public questioning about it. (Not that it was or is anyone's business in the first place.) More importantly, Foster ended her speech with a promise of the future to come, in which her films don’t star herself and maybe don’t open on 3,000 screens. With her eyes dead on the camera, with all the eerily direct vulnerability that once captivated audiences in movies like Silence of the Lambs, Foster declared, “I want to be seen, I want to be understood deeply, and to not be so very lonely.”
Filmmaking is an odd art form. You work privately with close collaborators, creating a moving image that will then be mass-produced for distribution among thousands or hopefully millions of strangers, and when the film is shared in a dark theater, the mass experience becomes an act of intimacy. Come into my world, come see through my eyes. As an audience, you’re not quite alone, but you’re not quite in public, and as a filmmaker, you’re physically absent while somehow remaining spiritually present. One foot is in both worlds, and for a woman who has spent most of her adult life trying to win back the privacy she gave up before she could realize what she was losing, maybe the in-between place is just what feels natural.