THE STORY – A filmmaker at a creative impasse seeks solace from her tumultuous past at a rural retreat, only to find that the woods summon her inner demons in intense and surprising ways.
THE CAST – Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott & Sarah Gadon
THE TEAM – Lawrence Michael Levine (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 104 Minutes
By Cody Dericks
This year has had an interesting and even eerie synchronicity when it comes to films being released that unknowingly capture the repetitive, trapped feeling that 2020 has brought to a lot of us. Whether it’s the comedic time loops of “Palm Springs” or the existential examination of time’s unpredictable speed and nature in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” something must have been in the air when a lot of this year’s movies were being made. Lawrence Michael Levine’s new film “Black Bear” is another example of this strange phenomenon – it’s a bracing examination of the cyclical ways that patterns and behaviors can play out and make us feel like a scripted performer in the story of our lives.
The film defies a simple description. On the surface, it’s a look into the delicate balance of a fraught relationship (Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon) that’s tested by the arrival of an outside party (Aubrey Plaza). What begins as a somewhat typical yet still engrossing domestic drama makes a sharp turn into something entirely different. In its unfolding layers, it becomes an exploration of the methods in which art preys upon and exploits the pain of its subjects and participants in a way that makes it hard to find the end of fiction and the start of reality.
If this all sounds a bit impenetrable, fear not. “Black Bear” is shockingly entertaining and darkly funny. It’s even sometimes hard to tell when we’re supposed to be laughing and when we’re supposed to be appalled. This intentional audience uncertainty further emphasizes the film’s look into the ways artists are expected to bare their souls while simultaneously not upsetting those around them. The film can even be seen as a satirical look at the pretentiousness and ultimate silliness of auteur-minded film directors. So often the ways a demanding director torments their cast is admired and even exalted when it can just as easily be seen as a sign that they don’t trust actors to be able to do their job – that is, to act.
The film’s central trio of actors perfectly help to bring to life the film’s challenging metatextual script. At the center of the story is Plaza’s chaotic and unpredictable Allison. Plaza is truly spectacular. She manages to find new depths and moments from a character who, in the wrong hands, could have been a clichéd display of excess. Her performance is upsetting and invigorating and completely impossible to ignore. Abbott plays the frustrated creative Gabe with a level of cynicism that makes it a blast to root against him and his devilish ways. Also, Gadon is wonderfully captivating as Blair. She’s frantic and magnetic.
The film’s unusual structure is exciting in its concept and entertaining in its execution. Once it was made clear to me what exactly the film was doing, I was thrilled. The relationship-based drama that’s seemingly the film’s focus gives way to a much more self-aware look into power dynamics and manipulation. I did have a bit of trouble pinning down exactly how the film’s two distinct halves speak to and inform each other, but that doesn’t mean I was distracted by their differences.
“Black Bear” is a fun and ultimately devastating exploration of the creative process and all of its unforgiving, unyielding qualities. Its mysterious purpose becomes clear in exciting ways that show that writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine is a talent to watch. His script is both tense and playful, and he directs his troop of actors to a fantastic ensemble performance.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The trio of actors at the film’s center deliver a wonderful ensemble performance, especially the ferocious Aubrey Plaza. The film takes unexpected and exciting turns as it examines the frustrating nature of the creative process.
THE BAD – The story has a hard time connecting as a whole.