Black Bear (United States, 2020)

December 02, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Black Bear Poster

Perhaps the best way to approach Black Bear is to watch it as two distinct short films (each a little under an hour in length) featuring the same primary trio of actors: Aubrey Plaza, Sarah Gadon, and Christopher Abbott. Putting aside the “connective tissue” provided by writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine, each story works well enough on its own. The first is about the introduction of an unstable influence into a marriage on the rocks. The second goes behind the scenes of an independent movie production and shows the lengths to which a perfectionist director will go to get the performance he demands – even if those methods are psychologically abusive.

There’s more going on in Black Bear than those two stories. Both feature the same actors playing characters with the same names. Both offer some of the same motifs (like Aubrey Plaza’s red bathing suit), and both have scenes that consciously echo or replicate one another. But figuring out what it all means – if it even means something (as opposed to the director having fun with the audience by pretending that it means something) – comes close to an exercise in futility. There’s clearly no “right” answer. It’s open ended and could be as simple as one or both of the stories being the output of a character (a writer) with the only representation of “reality” being a short prologue and epilogue.

The first story introduces Allison (Plaza) as a writer/director taking a break in search of inspiration. She rents a room at the lake house owned by Gabe (Abbott) and his pregnant wife, Blair (Gadon). Clever repartee shows how frayed the relationship is between Gabe and Blair and there’s an undeniable spark between him and Allison. But she’s not all she appears to be and the colorful, contradictory accounts she gives of her past are vaguely reminiscent of how the Joker described his “origin” in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

Fast-forward to story #2. This time, Gabe and Allison are the (un)happily married couple. Gabe is a director – driven, intense, and borderline-sadistic in his methods – and an alcoholic Allison is his leading lady. Blair is another actress working on the same film – an indie production in which the couple has sunk their savings. In order to get the most authentic performance from Allison, Gabe and Blair pretend to have an affair. Their “relationship” gets the desired effect – and more. Gabe hasn’t factored in the law of unintended consequences and it threatens to blow up in his face.

Black Bear represents a showcase for Aubrey Plaza, allowing viewers to see the breadth of her talent. Whether playing the mysterious, acerbic, manipulative character of the first story or the broken, tortured alcoholic of the second, Plaza is never less than wholly believable. Her penchant for choosing quirky independent productions over accessible mainstream ones has kept her off the A-list. For someone who is arguably best known for her comedy work (in particular, her lengthy association with Parks and Recreation), Black Bear represents an opportunity to plumb the depths of her dramatic abilities. She is ably assisted by Sarah Gadon and Christopher Abbott, but neither comes close to having a similar impact.

The way Levine has structured Black Bear turns the possible interconnections between the stories into a puzzle for which there is no ironclad solution. That’s part of the fun – speculating what it all means. For those who prefer a more passive experience, Black Bear offers a dollop of frustration but, for those willing to brush aside the web-like strands entwining the first story with the second, it’s an engaging double-feature.

Black Bear (United States, 2020)

Director: Lawrence Michael Levine
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Sarah Gadon, Christopher Abbott
Screenplay: Lawrence Michael Levine
Cinematography: Robert Leitzell
Music: Giulio Carmassi, Bryan Scary
U.S. Distributor: Momentum Pictures
Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: 2020-12-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs, Nudity)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1