An intelligently crafted, mind-bending, and dramatically satisfying look into the dark underbelly of the creative process, Black Bear isn’t the type of film that caters well to those looking for casual viewing. A film that openly demands continued and sustained analysis from its audience, Black Bear thoughtfully looks at the ways filmmaking can be both cathartic and destructive at the same time. Writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine (Wild Canaries) and his exceptional leading trio of actors put everything they have to give into their wild and constantly shape-shifting concept, giving Black Bear a tremendous amount of confidence, delicacy, and insight.
Filmmaker and actress Allison (Aubrey Plaza) has decided to take a sabbatical at a secluded cabin in upstate New York to destress and recharge her creative batteries. She’s renting a room from Gabe (Christopher Abbott), a struggling musician, and his pregnant partner, Blair (Sarah Gadon). Gabe and Blair’s relationship-of-convenience has obviously and passive aggressively reached a potential breaking point. While Allison – who proves to be a skilled and prolific liar – struggles to write something that could become her latest work, the filmmaker starts to further drive a wedge between her hosts.
That’s about all I can say about Black Bear without giving away Levine and company’s ultimate endgame. It spoils nothing to say that the elliptical construction of Black Bear’s emotionally and philosophically rich narrative takes the generalized plot synopsis I’ve written above and makes it mean multiple things at the same time. It’s a film about the creative process that understands how to layer meaning without being overly cute or unnecessarily symbolic. It’s a story of complex tension told with almost unnerving ease. It’s easy to classify Black Bear as a thriller of sorts, given the amount of professional and personal jealousy on display throughout, but the underlying terror comes primarily from the various ways Levine’s characters can destroy each other with words, actions, and hardly any afterthought.
Black Bear begins more or less like an austere take on the domestic thriller, where Allison’s interloper upends the tenuous peace between Gabe and Blair. But at the halfway point, Levine changes things up and turns the narrative into a different sort of beast that’s hard to explain; one that’s a lot more “inside baseball” when it comes to the filmmaking process than the set-up would let on. The first half of Black Bear plays like a dutiful, well performed, modernist ode to the likes of playwrights Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams. The second, harder to describe half of Levine’s work is tonally a bit like watching a remake of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, only it’s being told from the perspective of the creatives making such a head trip (only featuring a filmmaker far more tyrannical than Lynch). The second half turns the first on its head and offers a different way of viewing Black Bear through a chillingly self-aware deconstruction of its own story. Characters trade places and traits in intriguing ways that never betray the groundwork that has been set out from the start by Levine.
This kind of philosophical noodling might be exhausting to some, and in lesser hands, Black Bear could’ve been an insufferable ouroboros. Although Levine keeps things lightly brooding throughout with a subtle musical score, an appropriately isolating location, and a penchant for golden and metallic tones, Black Bear is a film built on empathy, even for characters who perpetually feel like villains. Plaza, Abbott, and Gadon have a firm grasp on the material and the duplicitous nature of their characters, and their performances can be read differently through the lens of whatever viewers bring to the film and the experience at hand. It’s often hard to tell the level of disdain these characters have for one another, and those settings are constantly being redefined through Levine’s clever deployment of purposefully contradictory information that becomes clearer the longer his story plays out. Black Bear places at its forefront the constant artistic battle between objectivity and subjectivity, always raising questions that filmmakers and writers are often too frightened to ask themselves (which are asked most poignantly and bluntly in the first half via Gadon’s outsider character).
Plaza (who’s having a wonderful fall between this and nearly stealing the entire show in the vastly different crowd pleaser Happiest Season last week) and Gadon are perfection as warped, mirror images of each others’ characters. Both Plaza and Gadon are playing women who want to be loved, noticed, and respected, but they have different ways and means of attaining those goals. The mid-narrative pivot only helps to deepen their already tremendous work. Meanwhile, the perpetually underrated Abbott (who got raves earlier in the season for his leading turn in Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor), plays carefully calculated variations on a character that’s the most obvious villain here; a man who makes life hell for those around him, and yet seems pleased with the final results. Black Bear is a film about the pursuit of artistic perfection that has almost achieved its impossible goals through its impeccably cast leads.
I say “almost perfect” because while Black Bear reaches a pleasingly ambiguous conclusion that nicely frames everything that came before it, I was left feeling like there would be more to the story than Levine presents. Any numerical grade or rating I could give to Black Bear is strictly arbitrary; a side effect of a machine that demands I do such a thing whether I feel like it or not. (Then again, if you just skipped to the bottom to find a 1-10 ranking of my thoughts on Black Bear, you’re emphatically not the audience this movie is aiming for.) Black Bear is a film that’s still settling with me long after I watched it. It probably benefits more (or possibly less) from additional views, but sadly I haven’t reached that point just yet. Like most subjective assessments of art, I can only speak to how Black Bear is sitting with me at the very moment I am writing this. The best part of Black Bear is that Levine has made it okay to think such complicated feelings. It’s the entire point of the film.
Black Bear opens in select Canadian theatres on Friday, December 4, 2020. If seeing a film in cinemas, please take all necessary precautions. Wear a mask, practice social distancing, and stay home if feeling ill. Black Bear is also available on VOD in Canada the same day.