Friday, December 4, 2020

Black Bear

A filmmaker (Aubrey Plaza) facing writer's block travels to a remote house in the Adirondack Mountains hoping for inspiration to strike. What happens next is subject to debate as any or all of the events could be nothing more than the actress turned director's dark musings and may or may not have any connection to reality. Written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine, Black Bear is primarily a vehicle to showcase Aubrey Plaza who owns the screen playing two different versions of the same character each trapped in a situation spiraling out of control.

In one version, Allison (Plaza) is greeted by the house's owners (Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon) who are stuck in a failing marriage with a baby on the way. Allison's arrival only further exacerbates the couple's problems by introducing an attractive unknown variable into their lives. In the second storyline, Allison is an actress starring in her husband's (Abbott) small independent film. With shooting nearly complete, he uses Allison's jealousy towards her co-star (Gadon) to force the best possible performance no matter what his psychological games to do her emotional state.

I've waffled on Black Bear multiple times since my one and only viewing of the film. It's pretentious and self-important to be sure. However, I think it's also imaginative and in some ways quite intoxicating as it deconstructs a woman's psyche through the lens of personal attraction and a grueling professional endeavor. It also feels like it could have used one more craftsman, one more editor, to sand down it's rougher edges. While some themes bleed from one story to the next, in the end our main character is as big a mystery as at the start of the film. Based on both tales we can glean trouble in both romantic and professional relationships from the two storylines where it looks like sex has always gotten in the way.

Levine gets into trouble at times prolonging scenes for the sake of a performance over that of the completed film. While effective, it also leads directly into the film's lulls as such moments, left unchecked, begin to work against the director's attempt to build tension. For example, we don't need nearly the amount of couple bickering in front of a stranger (which goes on for 20 straight minutes in the first storyline) to get the point. Nor we do need the number of inside filmmaking moments, including a coffee gag that gets out of hand, during Allison's second musing.

While flawed, Black Bear is memorable. This does help it stand out in the unusual crop of 2020 films. I will give Levine and cast credit for eliciting a multitude of conflicting emotions from me which made me think about Black Bear on multiple levels. Plaza's performance alone makes the film a must-see. I don't know that she's ever been better on-screen. The shift from one storyline to the other is a bit jarring, and I think the concept of the movie might have been helped by more than just two variations on a theme (even if a third version were far shorter) to help tie the film together. Both storylines lead to a similar crisis point, each involving the unexpected appearance of a Black Bear. Whether the bear is a metaphor for a fork in the road, death, or something else entirely is left up for you to decide.

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