LOS ANGELES — Movie screens this summer are not entirely booked with superheroes, kiddie fare and goofy buddy flicks. Plenty of mature dramas and comedies about dealing with — or escaping from — the problems of real life arrive alongside the season's big studio offerings.
If there's a grown-up blockbuster in the making for summer, it's the adaptation of the literary sensation "The Help," which has a built-in audience of millions of readers — women who can turn out in huge numbers when the right female-driven film shows up.
"If you make something new and original and depth-y and true and relatable, women are going to come," said "The Help" star Emma Stone, who plays an aspiring white writer stirring up her Mississippi home town during the civil-rights movement in 1963 by chronicling the lives of black maids.
"It's also great that the face of this movie represents America, because when we talk about women, often times we don't talk about women of color," said Viola Davis, who co-stars as one of the maids. "We're not included in that mixture, and in this story, we are included."
The summer lineup for the mature set also features Tom Hanks directing and co-starring with Julia Roberts in the campus tale "Larry Crowne"; Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess in "One Day," adapted from the best-selling novel; Woody Allen's French romance "Midnight in Paris"; Brad Pitt and Sean Penn in filmmaker Terrence Malick's family drama "The Tree of Life"; Helen Mirren in the Israeli-Nazi revenge thriller "The Debt"; and Mel Gibson's reclamation project "The Beaver," directed by co-star Jodie Foster.
Longtime friends Foster and Gibson, who co-starred in 1994's "Maverick," had shot "The Beaver" before Gibson's ugly breakup with ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva, which resulted in his no-contest plea and three years on probation after he was accused of striking her last year.
The movie had been in limbo while headlines swirled about Gibson, who already was on the outs in Hollywood for an anti-Semitic rant during a drunken-driving arrest in 2006.
Now "The Beaver" comes out as a provocative alternative to the popcorn pictures of Hollywood's summer, a season Gibson often dominated as an action hero in the 1980s and '90s.
Gibson plays a husband and father in the depths of suicidal depression that runs in his family. Thrown out of the house by his wife (Foster) and scorned by his oldest son (Anton Yelchin), Gibson's Walter Black struggles to pull back from the brink by communicating through a beaver puppet he finds in the trash.
What begins as a cute, charming self-help regimen gives way to arguably the darkest emotional depths Gibson has ever captured on screen as the beaver becomes a frightening alter-ego.
Will audiences be willing to look beyond the turmoil of Gibson's personal life and give the film a chance?
"I don't know. It's not my job. My job is to find the best actor, bring aboard an actor who will be able to understand the character in a deep way and bring him to life," Foster said. "From what I know of him, and I know quite a bit of him, he understands the character from a very true place. He brought that light touch that he can do, and I knew he would be willing to go much darker and heavier. ...
"In terms of an audience, I don't know. Can you see a movie and say, 'Wow, this is a performance that seems right,' and put what else you know aside?"
Other grown-up highlights:
— "The Tree of Life": Here's your chance to see how Sean Penn would have turned out if Brad Pitt were his father. Writer-director Terrence Malick chronicles a difficult father-son relationship from the boy's youth in the 1950s through disillusioned adulthood.
— "Larry Crowne": Tom Hanks falls on hard times as a downsized box-company worker who goes back to college and joins an assemblage of campus oddballs while developing a crush on his public-speaking teacher (Julia Roberts).
— "One Day": A single day on the calendar becomes a momentous one for Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess in an adaptation of the novel about a relationship that plays out over a 20-year succession of July 15ths.
— "Midnight in Paris": Woody Allen spins a romance in the city of light centered on a couple (Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams) and the temptations they encounter there. With Adrien Brody, Marion Cotillard and Michael Sheen.
— "The Debt": Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain star in a tale spanning 30 years as a retired Mossad agent goes back on the clock to take care of loose ends from an old mission to hunt down a Nazi war criminal.
— "Everything Must Go": A relapsed boozer (Will Ferrell) loses it all — his job, his wife, the keys to his house — and decides to camp out on his front lawn for a massive yard sale to unload all the baggage in his life. With Rebecca Hall.
— "Our Idiot Brother": An ex-con (Paul Rudd) with a rosy outlook gets out of jail and becomes an unwanted houseguest with each of his three sisters (Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel and Emily Mortimer) as they all struggle through crises.
— "Higher Ground": Vera Farmiga directs and stars in a drama about the life-long struggle with faith and relationships for a born-again Christian woman harboring doubts about her path.
— "A Better Life" — Chris Weitz ("American Pie," "About a Boy") directs an intimate Hispanic family story about an illegal migrant gardener (Demian Bichir) struggling to build a better future for his teenage son (Jose Julian).
— "The Devil's Double": Dominic Cooper does double duty in the true-life story of an Iraqi army lieutenant drafted to be the body double for Saddam Hussein's depraved son in the late 1980s.
— "Beginners": Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer star in a tale of family upheaval centered on a man whose 75-year-old father comes out of the closet and embraces a new gay life after 44 years of marriage.
— "The Whistleblower": A Nebraska cop (Rachel Weisz) signs on as a peacekeeper in post-war Bosnia, where she uncovers corruption and scandal amid efforts to rebuild the country. With Vanessa Redgrave, Monica Bellucci and David Strathairn.
— "Submarine": This coming-of-age story focuses on a teen aiming to preserve his parents' marriage and rev up their romance while trying to get his own sex life going. With Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor and Paddy Considine.