[Review] ‘BLACK BEAR’ a darkly exciting and turbulent drama about manipulation, artistic ambitions

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

BLACK BEAR

Rated R, 104 minutes.
Director: Lawrence Michael Levine
Cast: Aubrey PlazaSarah GadonChristopher Abbott, Paola Lázaro, Lindsay Burdge, Alexander Koch, Jennifer Kim, Shannon O’Neill, Grantham Coleman, Haitao Zeng and Lou Gonzalez

Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear is a film you can’t pigeonhole, and that’s part of its appeal. It draws upon a number of influences (the classic cabin in the woods setting to cure writer’s block and a romantic triangle to add fuel to the fire), though it merges them into its own outlandish art-thriller thing. And because it’s a title so chock full of mystery, it makes it a bit of a marketing challenge and difficult to talk about without spoiling some of the juicy details.

What I do feel comfortable revealing is it’s two different movies meshed together. How those two stories jointly function is for you to discover and process – and it will take time to process. 

One half of the narrative centers on an expectant couple, Blair and Gabe (Sarah Gadon and Christopher Abbott), running a lakeside compound in upstate New York. A guest named Allison (a never-better Aubrey Plaza) is an actor-turned-filmmaker working on her next screenplay.

The trio gets together for a wine-soaked dinner and light dancing. They discuss everything from artistic ambitions, gender roles, and the state of the world. (Levine impeccably captures those backyard conversations that you have with friends over drinks and a fire.)

Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott star in ‘BLACK BEAR.’ Courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

Suddenly, things get a bit heated as truth, or what can be perceived as the truth, begins to pour out. They air out their grievances and layout all their frustrations for us to piece together who these people really are. Perhaps there is more on their chests that they aren’t communicating just yet. But just as the tension meter spikes, the movie abruptly resets for another journey about shooting an indie movie that’s loosely about what transpired in the first half of Black Bear, with a whole lot of weirdness sandwiched in between. 

Levine’s film is a gripping meta-examination of relationships and filmmaking. It very much showcases the levels people will go to create fine art. It also begs the question: Is it worth it? Some of the world’s most influential works often stem from an artist’s pain. Many moments throughout Black Bear feel painfully genuine, whether it’s secrets, mind games, or emotional turmoil. No matter how off-kilter or puzzling things get, you cannot look away and keep yourself from trying to figure out this cerebral drama.

The primary reason why Black Bear maintains its claws in you is Plaza’s electric and fierce performance. Hopefully, the award season voters take note because Plaza gives one of the most impressive dances of madness that I have ever seen. There are times where she plays aspects of herself where she’s a difficult nut to crack and other times where she becomes wholly unleashed to make you stand up out of astonishment. Plaza never stops toying with your expectations, which, in turn, completely locks you into the fever of what happens on screen.

Black Bear is an absurd tragicomedy of sorts. It may very well cause you to walk away frustrated by its ambiguity. And while you may not be able to make heads or tails of it completely, it’s not an easy film to place in the rearview either. There’s simply too much to chew on, identify with, and discuss. The more you sit with it, the more intelligent it will reveal itself to be. Prepare yourself for an in-depth conversation afterward about love, jealousy, desire and art.

Grade: B+

Momentum Pictures’ Black Bear is now playing in select theaters and drive-in theaters. Also available on digital and video-on-demand.

Our interview with Aubrey Plaza, Sarah Gadon, Christopher Abbott, and writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine:

Official Trailer:

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.