It would be basically impossible to write anything about BLACK BEAR without giving away the central twist that happens midway through the film so be warned. The film, which changes tactics halfway through, gives me an easy opportunity to write a review completely divided in half, because I equally loved and hated itW
In BLACK BEAR, written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine, Allison (Aubrey Plaza) arrives at a cabin bed and breakfast’retreat on a gorgeous lake, miles away from anyone else. She’s there to work on her next film, hoping to grab inspiration in this secluded location. However, there is little peace to be found as she becomes like a tennis ball that is swatted back and forth between her host Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant girlfriend Blair (Sarah Gadon). It is hard to tell if the couple just enjoy fighting or if their relationship has just disintegrated into constant bickering. Allison at first seems amused, but then becomes the aim of their barbs. Blair is convinced that Gabe wants to fuck Allison. Anyway, ‘things happen’ and there is a shocking conclusion to that storyline right at the midpoint.
Then the film then resets to the same opening shot, but an entirely different plotline. Now Aubrey Plaza plays an actress in a film her husband is directing as he manipulates her performance by flirting with her co-star (Gadon again). Scenes repeat some of the first half but this is not the behind-the-scenes version of what we saw in the first half. In fact, this is an entirely different story, setting up Blair now the house guest to work on her dissertation. We see less of this story because more attention is being placed on the relationships of the crew members and how they handle their lead actress’s quick unraveling and deep dive into drunkenness – which puts her castmates in danger.
The structure of the film is absolutely brilliant, and it nails the eccentricities of crew politics and relationships. Details of being on set in a low budget film give the film a confident air of authenticity, right down to the sound mixer’s endlessly long pause for room tone every editor knows they will never use. In fact, the ensemble for the second half is so strong, I felt I was watching the cast of a very modern sitcom. Performances in the film shine, whether it’s a comic turn from the production manager suffering from tilapia-induced diarrhea, or the tour-de-force clinic Aubrey Plaza gives in three different roles, her character in the first half, her character in the second half, and her character playing a character in a film. I continue to be impressed with her chameleonesque intensity that seems to call back the great actresses of the 40s and 50s who just put it all out there and yet still appear approachable and human. Another standout is Gadon who manages both of her roles with the quiet distinction of someone fully invested in her craft and at the top of her game. Less effective is Abbott, who juggles three characters but seldom finds distinction in any of them. Honestly I cannot even tell you if Abbot also played the director and 2nd half version of Gabe (and the actor as Gabe) which would mean four roles. Maybe I just think all bearded hipster white males are basically the same, which fundamentally they are. Other than that, all the small roles in the second half have their moments and create an excellent ensemble.
The performances given by Plaza and Gadon are particularly impressive considering the material they were given to work with. Moment after moment it is obvious Black Bear is written by a white cidgender straight male. All the roles the two main women play fall on the one side of the other of the angel/whore dichotomy. All the women are basically nagging harpies, even the lesbian on the crew is jealous and paranoid. Or they are dumb. Or just want to hop in bed. This is yet another male fantasy of every woman wanting his dick play out on screen. Haven’t we had enough of that? Also, despite the interesting setup, the twofold structure didn’t really work for me. I never quite understood the reason why the movie they are filming had to be a different movie than we saw in the first half. it could always have been different scenes from the same movie if they wanted to not repeat material .I don’t think the choice made added anything to the film other than to increase confusion. And as much as I love the pacificity of the initial shot, featuring Aubrey Plaza sitting at the end pier, and really loved when it came back up at the opening of the second half… it really didn’t work the other two times. Basically the film opens with the pier shot, and then we jump back about an hour to the character’s arrival at the lake and follow linearly back up to the point where we saw her on the pier. And then we see the same series of shots again (getting up, folding the towel, heading inside, trying to write), identical takes, nothing has changed, no new understanding, no reason to waste time on it unless they were trying to make the film a certain duration. Then at the end of the film we see the same sequence of shots AGAIN as if we are about to watch a third incarnation. I actually heard people groan in the audience. How long is this movie? But then it just ends. So basically, we have the same sequence of shots, about 2 minutes long, bookending the film, and then again about 10 minutes into the film. I don’t know. For the sake of being Arty?
So I can’t give BLACK BEAR my recommendation, however much I want to despite my name being Bears. I can however happily report that there was indeed a black bear on screen and, like all black bears are, it’s very cute. So at least there was that, and it’s never a complete waste of time to watch Aubrey Plaza work.