Movie Review: Black Bear

This has been a good year for Aubrey Plaza (CHILD’S PLAY). The former PARKS & REC actress received a lot of positive buzz last month for her performance as the wronged ex-girlfriend in HAPPIEST SEASON. Now she’s getting good reviews for an indie film that she’s starring in and co-produced.

In BLACK BEAR, Plaza plays Allison, a former actress who has now turned her attention to writing screenplays. It seems that no one wants to hire her as an actress anymore because she’s difficult to work with. To get some inspiration for her next project, Allison heads off to a secluded home in the Adirondacks that is owned by Gabe (Christopher Abbott, FIRST MAN; A MOST VIOLENT YEAR; TV’s CATCH-22) and his pregnant wife, Blair (Sarah Gadon), a bohemian couple from Brooklyn who themselves struggled to make a go of their careers in the arts in the Big Apple. Gabe and Blair have hefty marital issues – he’s completely misogynistic and she’s passive-aggressive – and it’s not long before Allison finds herself caught in the middle of one of their many arguments. And fade to black because, we learn, that scenario was all fiction. Allison, it turns out is still an actress who is starring in a movie directed by her husband Gabe. Her co-star in the film is Blair, whom Allison thinks is having an affair with Gabe. Unlike the fictional Blair though, the real Allison has good reason to question her husband’s fidelity. Gabe and Blair have made it look like they are doing the dirty deed together to get Allison, who is a method actor par excellence, to find the right motivation for her character in the film-within-a-film.

So what’s this got to do with a black bear, you ask? To be honest, I’m not sure other than that a bear seems to be always lurking outside the luxury cabin. Maybe Allison is the black bear in this threesome. Furry wild animal notwithstanding, writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine (WILD CANARIES) has created a quirky story that takes audiences on a bumpy ride into the mind of a screenwriter. It’s hard to know what’s real and what’s imagined as early on Allison tells Gabe that she lies about everything. Is Allison a working actress, an actress-turned-screenwriter or maybe she’s just gone off the deep end? BLACK BEAR will keep you guessing all the way to its closing scene and, even then, it will take some analysis to figure it all out.

For her part, Plaza’s performance and now legendary side glances make the film work, forcing audiences to try to get a handle on who Allison really is. Is she the victim or the perpetrator in this story? BLACK BEAR hints of something we would expect from Charlie Kaufman or John Cassavetes though it’s not as sophisticated or polished. Still, it’s not bad. Abbott and Gadon also provide good support work here, both as the fictional and the real Gabe and Blair… or are they both fictional? The film-within-a-film also features a number of other characters, all of whom seem to have their foibles, but they have little to do with the main focus of the film and may only be there to illustrate to audiences how chaotic and spontaneous an indie film shoot may be. A running gag involving cups of coffee also appears to follow that thesis.

While BLACK BEAR has its moments of brilliance, it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste. The first story is more interesting than the second and one may wish that Levine had just stayed in that orbit rather than shooting for the moon. It would have been a very different movie if he had though.

BLACK BEAR is available now on Amazon Prime Video. It’s challenging, for sure, but it’s worth checking out if only for Aubrey Plaza.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, December 18th, 8:30 am HK time!

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