Allison (played by Aubrey Plaza) is an actress turned writer/director, heads off to a quiet retreat run by Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon) who are creatives themselves. Gabe is a musician and Blair is a dancer, although her career is currently on hold because she’s pregnant. Allison is attempting to clear the artistic fog which has descended upon her and the beautiful lakeside setting might just be what she needs to kickstart her latest opus.
There’s also potential grist for Allison’s screenwriting mill in the form of the barely concealed tension in Gabe and Blair’s relationship. For a couple expecting a child, they don’t seem particularly in love. As a matter of fact, it appears that they’re almost at the point where they’re having trouble even tolerating each other and when they invite Allison over for dinner and drinks (oh, and drugs – always a good move in a tense situation) the entire situation inevitably combusts.
Black Bear is, at least in its opening half, set-up like a horror film, structured like a horror film and throws in an unpleasant plot turn which is straight out of a horror film. There’s often something sinister bubbling underneath what’s happening on the surface and the motivations of the characters frequently have some form of malevolence at their core. The accompanying blurb about the film also mentions “inner demons”.
And yet, this is clearly not a horror movie in the general sense, it’s a drama shot through with pitch black humour and a smattering of horror-adjacent sequences. The inner demons don’t manifest themselves in the way genre fans would be expecting. However, in terms of looking into the dark souls of the protagonists, there’s probably a good case to be made for a horror film reviewer taking this one on. Hello, folks.
Black Bear has a lot to say about artifice. The opening scenes, in which the three main protagonists meet, are loaded with it. Allison isn’t particularly comfortable with Gabe asking her questions and we’re never sure the answers she gives are truthful or just something she thinks will be close off that particularly line of inquiry.
As the opening act unfolds, Blair makes as little of her achievements as Gabe makes the most of his but that in itself creates its own tension between the pair, it’s one of many things which Allison picks up on and from then on it’s a question of whether or not she will take the opportunity to engineer the possible chaos.
Central to the success of Black Bear is the casting, notably that of Aubrey Plaza, who has carved out an increasingly impressive body of work prior to this and delivers a stellar performance here. Gadon and Abbott are both excellent, of course, Abbott nailing the creepy aura of a guy who is just trying too hard to justify his own fragile self-importance, while Gadon cuts a more serene and sympathetic figure but one which still belies a determined steeliness.
Even so, it’s Aubrey Plaza’s show. More often than not, it’s impossible to tell the thoughts crossing Allison’s mind behind that aloof exterior. In the opening forty-five minutes of the movie, she veers from almost completely disinterested to rocking the foundations of a crumbling relationship without ever betraying her intentions. Is she playing the situation for her own inspiration or does she genuinely have an affinity for this new couple in her life
The plot shift also presents a change for the character of Allison in a number of different ways and without going into spoiler territory this does allow Plaza to run the gamut of emotions and knock it out of the park with her career-best work. Yes, it may be an overused phrase but it’s undoubtedly the case here. Aubrey Plaza is outstanding, no two ways about it.
There’s also much in the way of how not only Allison but also Blair, and particularly Gabe, set about portraying an image of how they would want to be perceived by others and this chimes with the creation of a piece of work and the characters which will inhabit that. Just as we’re getting comfortable with the steadily twisting dynamic between the three, the plot turns completely on its head, the roles of the protagonists shift in an unexpected way and we’re presented with a completely different view of the entire story, leaving the audience to work out what’s real and imagined as the entire process goes about deconstructing itself.
I would hazard a guess that some of you are going to find this pretentious beyond belief and that’s fair. There are moments which couldn’t be more symbolic if someone walked into your room waving a huge sheet of card bearing a word written in enormous, bold font. Suffice to say, I was a tad irritated by this approach on a first watch but I was more than intrigued enough to watch it again. It was that second viewing where I was less distracted by those moments which had seemed too on the nose previously and I was able to appreciate it so much more.
I also appreciate that my suggestion that you might want to see this twice might not be the most appealing and you may be so turned off by the clever-clever stylistic choices that revisiting this would be the very last thing you’d undertake. I understand that. This is not a movie which is going to land with everyone and it’s not a question of being smart or, indeed, movie literate enough to “get it”. I know people far smarter than me whom I predict will not like this one little bit.
Black Bear is a look at the artistic process and the ways in which those involved aim to attain the goals of a creative endeavour, even if it means exploiting the psychological flaws of those close to you to generate an atmosphere in which heightened drama will thrive. It’s a view of producing art which doesn’t exactly paint its participants in a beatific light and the notion that the abuse of performers to pull something extraordinary from them is an uncomfortable but, given various reports about various figures in the film industry, a far from improbable one.
The architecture of writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine’s tale allows the viewer to refer backwards as the story proceeds, then invites a similar trace forwards from the beginning as the end credits roll. It’s a work in which plays out with its own set of references and repetitions from multiple points of view. There’s a striking, oddly tense sequence in which Aubrey Plaza, dressed in a red swimsuit, stares out across the lake. Each time the film returns to this it’s in a different context but there’s a wait to be let into exactly what the hell is going on because Plaza’s cryptic gaze is giving you no clues.
In the final analysis, is Black Bear a complex riddle which leaves your head aching after you’ve launched into another doomed attempt to unpack it all or is it a movie which is nowhere near as ingenious as it leads you to think? To be quite honest, I have absolutely no idea, and that’s part of the fun of watching this. It’s serious, it’s silly, it’s straightforward, it’s complicated, it’s honest and yet it’s full of lies. That may sound like nonsense, but I assure you it’s not. Oh yes, it’s nonsense and yet it also makes total sense.
Considering the events of this, I don’t even want to begin to consider just how much of this may be autobiographical. I’m hoping that Levine is just playing a massive game with the viewer and that the sporadic bursts of nervous laughter from me were ample payoff for his expertly crafted wind-up. Whatever the reality, this is a pointed, sometimes brutally hilarious view of the extremely specific environment in which he resides.
The committed performances, the purposely awkward dialogue peppered throughout and a couple of bizarre running gags work to establish a structure that doesn’t so much blur the lines between fact and fiction as to erase them entirely. Black Bear may frustrate as much as it delights but it rarely compromises for the sake of its audience and its intriguing nature meant that I was willing to experience every single moment of it. Twice.
As to the eventual reference to the titular creature, it should come as no surprise that it’s as offbeat as the rest of this.