Note: The writer of this review watched Black Bear on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
Black Bear is the movie that proves, beyond any lingering doubt, that Aubrey Plaza has much more to offer than the best eye-roll in the business. Maybe that was clear already. Plaza, after all, has had a pretty good few years, expanding her range with volatile, animated performances in Ingrid Goes Went and the FX superhero spinoff Legion. (She’s had a pretty good couple weeks, too—just ask everyone convinced that it was her who should have ended up with Kristen Stewart at the end of Happiest Season.) Yet Black Bear, a claustrophobic mind-game psychodrama that premiered at Sundance back in January and is now sliding into commercial release, feels like the richest showcase yet for Plaza’s talents… or at least for the ones that went unexploited during the years when the former sitcom star was doing variations, via typecasting or reflex, on the comic shtick she mastered and deepened on Parks And Recreation.
In general disposition, the main character of Black Bear isn’t so radically different than April Ludegate. Plaza plays Allison, a one-time indie starlet who moved into filmmaking after she stopped getting acting gigs. (“Unsuccessful, small ones that nobody likes,” is how she describes her movies.) Allison has decamped for a secluded lakeside cabin in Upstate New York, where she hopes to push through a recent bout of writer’s block. From the moment we meet her, we can detect traces of what you could call vintage Plaza: deadpan, withering, aloof, doing an exquisitely refined millennial upgrade of Gen X ironic remove. Black Bear recognizes those qualities as a front, a carefully crafted persona, and it isn’t long before we learn that every third word that comes out of Allison’s mouth is a lie. Right from the start, the film is operating as a commentary on the usual Plaza type; the role was written for her, and it shows.
Everyone in Black Bear is, to some extent, lying—to themselves or to others. They’re all performers, in life if not by trade. What starts out like the setup for a horror movie, complete with ominous music and an isolated cabin in the woods, quickly gives way to a kind of social horror. The property/retreat is owned by Gabe (Christopher Abbott), who inherited the place from family and has moved out there to start his own with Blair (Sarah Gadon), his expecting girlfriend. An underlying tension in their relationship is immediately obvious. Gabe fancies himself a professional musician, but he hasn’t caught work in ages—the free room and board may be the true impetus of the pair’s flight from the city. Sipping, despite the bun in the oven, on a large glass of wine, Blair needles him about his pretentions, over a meal that’s as pregnant with unarticulated resentment as she is with child. There is trouble in paradise.
Is Allison an innocent bystander in this domestic quarrel between strangers? Or is she orchestrating the whole thing out of boredom? As the night drags on, the conversation tilts from passive aggression to outright antagonism. Writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine has a gift for the ebb and flow of an escalating argument, and for penning little homing missiles of acerbic hostility. His last movie, Wild Canaries, was a shaggy hoot—a screwball hipster comedy about a bunch of sexually fluid New Yorkers mixed up in a murder mystery. Though it reverberates with some of the same anxieties, including the straying libidos of young, attractive, vaguely dissatisfied creative types, Black Bear is a much pricklier piece of work—and a more confident one, too. For a while, we could be watching a 21st-century Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, in which the fault lines in a toxic relationship creep out from Gabe’s insecurities about, in his own words, “the destabilization of traditional gender roles.”
Black Bear could easily have sustained its gauntlet of awkwardness and temptation. (There’s a whole film in the history sketched through implication by Abbott and Gadon, both typically excellent.) Instead, Levine radically reboots his scenario. Suddenly, we’re thrust into the final day of a film production, shot at the same remote cabin; the three-hander we’d been watching is now a movie within a new movie, a chaos-on-the-set farce with the same characters in different roles. In the wrong hands, this kind of big conceptual reset might feel like a Hail Mary—a bit of faux-Charlie Kaufman meta trickery in lieu of genuine resolution. Remarkably, though, Black Bear’s second half is every bit as exhilarating as its first, in part because it opens up Levine’s inquiry into the troubling ways artists mix life and work. (He’s married to fellow filmmaker Sophia Takal; let’s hope their history of collaboration only loosely inspired the destructive, manipulative emotional games these characters play.)
The stories don’t fit together perfectly like puzzle pieces. There’s no clean Mulholland Drive delineation, no indication that one is “real” and the other not. If anything, the implication is of a work in progress, Allison writing and rewriting fictionalized versions of her experiences. Truthfully, the movie might have benefited from a cleaner punctuation, or at least a less baldly metaphoric ellipses. (You can almost hear the jokey whispers of “That’s the black bear” now.) But if this boldly bifurcated drama of romantic and creative unrest never completely coheres, it remains a sturdy platform for its star—especially in the back stretch, when we meet a version of Allison wracked with suspicion, deep under the influence, and denied all the defense mechanisms we can usually expect from a character played by this actor. The climactic storm of distraught emotion is something we’ve never seen from Plaza. In Black Bear, she winks at all her old tricks, then shows us what she’s capable of without them.