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Aubrey Plaza is one of those performers who is always good, no matter how big the part or how strong the movie. Whether she’s part of a sitcom ensemble like Parks & Recreation, vamping it up as a villain on superhero show Legion or playing the charismatic foil in a rom-com like the Happiest Season, the viewer is drawn to her. Hell, she was even good in dreck like Dirty Grandpa. There’s something about her big expressive eyes, her smirk that can read simultaneously as genuine and ironic, and her comic yet dry delivery that combined gives the characters she plays a rich inner life, an unpredictable quality. No matter who she is playing, the audience always wants to know more.
While Plaza has shone in plenty of projects, very few have given her a lead role worthy of her talents – 2017’s dark yet slightly treacly comedy-drama Ingrid Goes West probably came closest. That is until Black Bear, the latest from indie writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine (Gabi on the Roof in July) – a thriller-drama with echoes of John Cassavetes and Robert Altman. In a starring part that plays to her strengths, it’s only here Plaza has been able to finally give the full-blooded, startingly powerful performance that those following her career knew was in her.
She plays Allison, who begins the film as an actress-turned-filmmaker who is in between projects and is looking for inspiration. She rents a room at a remote lake house – run by musician Gabe (Christopher Abbott, Possessor) and his pregnant dancer girlfriend Blair (Sarah Gadon, Alias Grace) – in order to try to write a screenplay. Blair and Gabe quickly reveal themselves to be unhappy together, as evident by their constant bickering. Meanwhile, the mysterious Allison’s presence drives a further wedge between them.
Frankly, this scenario would be intriguing enough to sustain a feature. In this early passage, the audience has no idea where their loyalties should lie. While Allison is very likable from the opening moments, thanks to her brazen attitude towards life and sharp wit, there’s something slightly off about her. For one thing, she is enigmatic – at one point denying she is married, despite Gabe being told she was. At other points, she seems to delight in sparking feuds between the couple she is staying with.
Further enthralling viewers (and adding to the 60s / 70s indie US cinema fumes Black Bear runs on) is Abbott and Gadon’s seemingly Who’s Afraid of the Virginia Woolf? inspired turns. The pair deliver big theatrical performances as the resentful and confrontational Gabe and the fragile yet fiery Blair, making every swipe at each other – whether it be a passive-aggressive remark or a screamed insult – incredibly entertaining. Couple this with hints that the title bear is roaming outside the lake house and a suspenseful score and setting that feels ripped from Robert Altman’s horror Images, Black Bear accomplishes that increasingly difficult thing for a film to attain – to be genuinely unpredictable.
For those who don’t want to know more about Black Bear’s plot, I would advise them to stop reading now and go see the movie before returning to this review.
As this early portion of the drama reaches its crescendo, Black Bear pulls the rug out from under viewers and resets to its opening scene. Stay with me here as this is where it gets weird. In the second portion of the film, it’s actually Abbott’s Gabe and Plaza’s Allison that are married, except Gabe is the director. He is making a movie starring Allison and Gadon’s Blair that seems based on the events we previously saw in Black Bear’s first half. Even more strange is that in this second section, Plaza and Gadon’s characters appear to have switched their roles as scorned partner and interloper, with Gabe looking to stoke conflict between his actresses in order to make his picture feel even more real.
While I imagine certain viewers will be taken aback by the abrupt shift towards meta-textuality, those who love a mind-bending experience are sure to get something out of Black Bear’s more expansive, both literally in terms of its cast and figuratively in terms of its ideas, second half. To be honest, I believe it will take multiple viewings to fully interpret what exactly Black Bear is about, particularly given its final moments. Is it a cautionary tale about how making “true art” can damage your relationships with those around you? Is it simply depicting a writer working through different drafts of a screenplay? Should it be taken more at face value as a surreal 3 Women / Persona-esque riff about shifting identities? On first glance, it’s all three of these things and more.
While in lesser hands, this ambiguity could be frustrating – it’s the performances that make Black Bear feel satisfying on a first watch. While Plaza was great if understated in the movie’s quieter opening stretch, she delivers a big, showy performance in its second half (think Gena Rowlands in Opening Night) as an actress pushed to the edge of sanity and past it for the benefit of the film within a film.
Raw and volatile, there are times – such as when she attacks her co-star during a scene after being tricked into thinking she is sleeping with her husband – where the darkness Plaza musters inside her character is truly terrifying, upsetting and thrilling. While the film may be constantly shifting in terms of story and tone, it’s Plaza – aided by Abbott and Gadon – that keeps it gripping and anchored in some form of recognisable reality.
Helping to further ground the film is Levine’s tactile direction. So much of Black Bear is comprised of what’s unspoken. This is a film where a subtle glance and smile between two characters is enough to drive another into full-blown hysterics. Levine’s command of escalating tension is worth commending too. Particularly in the film’s second half, as more characters get pulled into the central trio’s mind games, the filmmaker stacks multiple conflicts and moments of tension on top of each other – setting the scene for an eventual cathartic explosion – in a way that feels both blackly comic and nail-bitingly taut.
Black Bear will not be for everyone – the movie most likely being too weird to attract a sizable mainstream audience. That said, for those who like their cinema more independent and risky, as well as those interested in seeing three actors at the peak of their craft go crazy in a secluded location, there’s a lot to love in this playful, possibly future cult flick. Personally, I can’t wait to re-watch it and have another chance at deciphering its meaning.