Synopsis: Allison (Aubrey Plaza) is a filmmaker who decamps to an idyllic upstate New York lake house in search of inspiration for her next movie. Slowly, sexual and psychological tension begins to mount between Allison and her hosts, unemployed musician Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and pregnant ex-dancer Blair (Sarah Gadon). Then the film hits the halfway mark and … well, you should see for yourself.
[Heavy spoilers ahead, though it is nothing the trailer does not already reveal]
1. Black Bear, the latest from writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine, is a movie that is weaker than the sum of its parts and yet still manages to be oddly satisfying. Part of which is how fantastic those two parts are, both of which could (and perhaps should) have been easily stretched out to feature length. I will reverse course a little. The synopsis you read above is accurate … for the first half of the movie. Then, after a climactic moment, the film seemingly rewinds itself back to its first shot of Allison staring at the lake, only to reveal a camera crew filming her. Now it is the story of Allison (Plaza), an actress on the verge of a nervous breakdown thanks to the psychological manipulation of her director husband Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and co-star Blair (Sarah Gadon), seemingly to draw the best performance out of her in the indie movie they are making.
Yeah. I know.
2. It is not just the stories that differ in Part 1 and Part 2 of the movie (which are nicely demarcated by Tarantino/Wes Anderson-style title cards), but the filmmaking styles as well. Part 1 is a formalist’s wet dream, with lengthy static shots and immaculately crafted shot compositions. Part 2 swings to the other extreme, relying largely on a constantly moving handheld camera (which is lampshaded by Abbott’s director character) to create a visceral documentary-realistic style. The respective tones of each part differ greatly too, with Part 1 playing out like a millennial version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, as the characters volley acid-tinged repartee back and forth under the guise of polite dinner conversation. Part 2, on the other hand, hews closer to something like Cassavetes’ A Woman Under The Influence, with a frenetic pace and almost histrionic timbre, often veering right into the realm of slapstick comedy and melodrama.
3. And here’s the thing – both parts of Black Bear are excellent, and a fine (if somewhat show-offy) exhibition of Levine’s talent and versatility. I’m more partial to Part 1, which establishes such a fantastic mood of cagey menace that I was a little disappointed when the film transitioned to a bigger and broader register. Part 2, while still very much enjoyable in a gleefully anarchic way thanks to its metatextual play, cannot help but seem like a comedown from the taut-stretched tension of the first half. Plus, purely from personal preference, the very millennial issues raised in Part 1 (failed artistic ambition, anxiety over the future, money troubles, political discussions that become very personal) were far more resonant for me than the more inside-baseball study of the blurred lines between life and art. Nonetheless, both parts were quite superb, and would have been excellent movies on their own, which I eventually found myself wishing they were.
4. The problem – and it is a big one – is that the two halves simply do not cohere very well. Plaza’s Allison says at one point in the first half that her process involves finding a simple story like ‘good triumphs over evil’ and running it through as many permutations as possible, and this line feels very much like a Rosetta Stone for Black Bear as a whole. There are echoes of certain motifs and themes throughout – a red and black dress, the characters’ names, infidelity, psychological manipulation, and of course, the eponymous black bear, but it’s difficult to see any kind of consistent through-line between them other than ‘oh that’s another repeated thing’. The repeated shot of Allison sitting down to write that opens each part (and the challenging final shot of the movie) seems to imply that all these events are simply variations on the theme of infidelity / the other woman that she is working through for her next project. The issue here is that without some sense of what ‘reality’ is, it is very difficult to see how one part reflects on the other. There is a reason why films that do the whole ‘hey part of this movie actually a ‘fictional’ story a character is making up’ thing always establish a baseline reality, (1) because this anchors the film in something concrete. Otherwise, there is a real danger that the whole affair becomes a weightless exercise in intellectual abstraction, which is an unkind but not entirely inaccurate description of Black Bear.
5. Yet Black Bear contains one saving grace that lends it emotional resonance in Aubrey Plaza’s lead performance. Plaza undoubtedly has had the most interesting post-Parks & Rec resume of her former sitcom castmates, ranging from her revelatory villain turn in Legion to starring in macabre indies like Ingrid Goes West to even the odd mainstream role in studio comedies. Yet as good as she has been prior, Black Bear pushes Plaza to new heights. The first half toys with Plaza’s usual persona, without ever being overly challenging – a spin on the usual aloof, sardonic agent of chaos role she played for six years. The second half, however, is a revelation. The best way I can put it is that Plaza goes there – the place of raw, unfiltered emotion where watching almost feels uncomfortable. It is a performance right on the edge of being too much, perfectly modulated with loud-quiet-loud dynamics in the vein of a Pixies’ song. (2) It reminds me in many ways of Toni Collette’s work in Hereditary, which is only, y’know, one of the greatest acting performances of all time. Next to her, both Christopher Abbott (making a fine career of playing disaffected millennial men) and Sarah Gadon (who was amazing in Alias Grace) do fantastic work as well, making Black Bear far more of an evenly balanced three-hander rather than just the Aubrey Plaza show.
6. It is thus unfortunate then, that the movie does not live up to the strength of its lead performance – nor really, to the strength of its component parts. Black Bear is brimming with talent and craftsmanship, but ends up getting in its own way with its almost unnecessary welding together of two parts that really only cohere on the most surface level thematic and symbolic level. It is undoubtedly still worth a watch, and I wholeheartedly recommend it, but perhaps it is better to think of it as two excellent short films that just happen to be viewed one after another.
Black Bear is available to stream on Google Play