Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Film review: The Beaver Kid

A true original presented with faded copies

Like a queer version of the Grey Gardens phenomena The Beaver Trilogy is a cult fave, an improbable mix of documentary and fictional follow-up that garnered a rabid following.
In 1979 a Salt Lake City news cameraman is in a local TV station parking lot testing a new video camera when into his viewfinder pops a gregarious, handsome young man totally excited to be caught on camera. Between fits of barking laughter, the man — known only as the Beaver Kid, or “Groovin’ Gary,” his CB moniker — launches into a series of celebrity impressions: John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone, Barry Manilow. He also loves Olivia Newton John; his Chevy Impala is even pimped out with window etchings of Olivia and Farah Fawcett.
Months later the kid puts together a talent show up in his hometown of Beaver, Utah where he’s going to perform in drag as Olivia Newton Don and begs the cameraman to come up to cover the event. The cameraman obliges: The footage — from the kid getting made up at a local funeral home to his and other locals’ performances — is cringingly hysterical.
The cameraman, Trent Harris, went on to make documentaries and features like Ruben and Ed and Plan 10 from Outer Space. But he was haunted by the scattershot footage of the kid from Beaver. In 1980 he made a cheap indie short, Beaver Kid #2, starring a fresh-faced Sean Penn playing the kid, now called Larry, in what is a virtual transposition of the original rough footage. In 1985 Harris tried again, creating a more fleshed out dramatic short with strong production values called The Orkly Kid and starring Crispin Glover as Larry.
The fictional accounts present Harris’s view of what life must have been like for the kid, a picked-on outsider, probably gay, turning to the music of Olivia Newton John for solace and inspiration.
All three pieces were shown together for the first time in 2000 as The Beaver Trilogy. Together they raise intriguing questions about the relationship between artists and their subjects. But The Beaver Trilogy is unsatisfying. It doesn’t answer unavoidable questions around exploitation… nor countless other questions about the kid.
Despite wonderfully committed performances by both Penn and Glover, neither short does the original justice. The kid, whose real name was Richard Griffiths, is a fascinating subject and it’s great we have a document from his youth. But Harris doesn’t know Griffiths well enough — and I don’t think he cares enough — to go beyond a rather predictable narrative of finding inner strength. We don’t even know if Griffiths was gay; he died earlier this year at age 50, still in Beaver, married to a woman.
The trilogy should have followed what HBO did when the US network recently broadcast Grey Gardens, showing the latest fictional account of the Beales women, first, before the hit documentary on which it’s based. Watching The Beaver Trilogy chronologically is anticlimactic.