It’s hard to put Black Bear in a box. The movie, from writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine, eschews convention at every turn. It’s a comedy, it’s a relationship drama, it’s a horror story, it’s a meditation on artistry. It goes in so many directions, it’ll give you whiplash. But that’s sort of the point. Black Bear is a film that purposely screws with your perception, happy to disorient and reconfigure so that, by the end, you feel like you’re stumbling towards the door, unsure of where you’ve just been. It’s a brilliant ride.
The film is split into chapters. In the first, we follow Allison (Aubrey Plaza), an actress-turned-director who heads to a wooded retreat to seek inspiration for her next film. She’s staying with the caretakers, a man named Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant partner Blair (Sarah Gadon). Gabe inherited the lakeside property from his family, who aren’t sure what do to with it, and the setting quickly becomes that cliched fourth character—an off-the-grid playground for our trio to inhabit. Out there, away from everything else, they can say whatever they want to say, do whatever they want to do. Allison and Gabe immediately hit it off, but as Blair tries to find her own commonality, she pushes herself away. The idiosyncrasies stack up, and attraction and mismatched wit boil over until this weekend retreat turns into the stuff of melodrama.
But just when you get a grip on Allison, Gabe, and Blair’s story, everything shifts. The next chapter of Black Bear reframes the whole story. Now, Allison and Blair are actors, the wooded retreat a set, and Gabe the director. They are caught in a similar web, but somewhat reversed, as Allison and Gabe are spouses who’ve poured their money into this production in hopes of creating an important, meta piece of art. To do that, Gabe creates a manic set, where actors and crew members misbehave. Allison suffers the most from this; she suspects her husband is sleeping with Blair, and so she reacts the way any eccentric artist might: she boozes her way through her scenes, throws herself on the floor dramatically, and channels every chaotic bit of energy she can muster, which she then pours into her scenes.
The effect of these clashing storylines is dizzying. It’s clear that Levine is pouring some of his own experience into these frames. (In his prior films, Gabi on the Roof in July and Wild Canaries, he starred opposite his own director wife Sophia Takal). That fact adds a delicious layer of interest to the goings on, but also puts the audience at an arm’s length. This is clearly a film about moviemaking for people who have intimate experience on a set. Which is fine, if somewhat limiting. Allison’s behavior is ghastly to anyone unfamiliar with the rigors of performance and cinematic expectation. But to the initiated, it’s a tragedy.
Aubrey Plaza, it should be noted, is utterly superb here. This is easily her best acting work to date, though she teased her capabilities in projects like Ingrid Goes West and Legion. She has a manic gravitas here that evokes Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence or Elisabeth Moss in Her Smell—other movies about women crippled by expectations thrusted upon them. She plays the even-toned Allison of the first half with a Cheshire smile, before splitting atoms in the second chapter. In one scene, she lays naked on the floor, laughing and crying, drunk out of her mind, and it so beautifully illustrates Allison’s woes that it’s heartbreaking to watch. Likewise, Abbott and Gadon are impressive in their smaller, less showy roles, the dependable co-leads who anchor the ruckus around them.
All-in-all, Black Bear is an impressive, indelible look at the creative process and the cost of indulgence. It’s a striking little movie, bolstered by excellent performances; one that skews commerciality to tell a painstaking story about what it means to create great art. Or to at least try.
Featured Image: Momentum Pictures