Black Bear December 17, 2020
t first, Black Bear, the excitingly unpredictable new movie from writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine, seems en route to becoming a standard cabin-in-the-woods-set horror movie. Once I’d sat through its first few tension-laden scenes I guessed that maybe an intruder would violently interrupt the trio congregating at said cabin — a filmmaker, Allison (Aubrey Plaza), looking for a relaxing place to write
her next feature, and the couple that owns the property, musician Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and two-months-pregnant ex-dancer Blair (Sarah Gadon). Or, if Levine was hoping to land somewhere more down to earth, perhaps something could simply emotionally rupture between the three. The film soon seems more poised to go with the second option. Gabe and Blair are very evidently a couple that spends way too much time together (and not in the at least somewhat tolerably finishing-each-other’s-sentences sort of way). And Allison so often responds to their questions with a funny deadpan affectation that we, and her companions for the weekend, can’t be sure when and if she’s being genuine — something that particularly bothers Blair.
It turns out that it’s needless in Black Bear, about which I didn’t know anything ahead of time, to try to stay a step ahead of the action — forecast where it’s going to take us. It comprises two vignettes, essentially, and each is aesthetically and emotionally distinct. In the segment following the snapshot of the tense weekend vacation, Gabe is a pretentious filmmaker married to the hard-drinking Allison. Blair is a smarmy co-star, and they’re all at the cabin shooting a movie apparently based on Gabe and lead actress Allison’s crumbling relationship.
In his previous movies, Levine hovered around couples whose relationship was tested when a destabilizing force — usually a person — came into their life and inadvertently nudged some of their buried-deep disaffections into the fore. Black Bear continues the trend, but it’s a movie more concerned than its predecessors on what might manifest when two creative people are in a relationship — particularly when those people are artistic collaborators, too. (Levine is married to filmmaker Sophia Takal, a consistent collaborator who also co-produced the movie; Black Bear is dedicated to her.) The movie is bookended by moments where Plaza, presumably a stand-in for Levine, gets up from space-out sessions at the beach, heads to her bedroom desk, and starts writing. We can infer that the two segments in the movie take place in realities separate from these bookends. The segments must be the fruits borne of Allison's imagination, though it’s tricky to say where the extended segments are in her mind draft-wise.
A filmmaker less probing than Levine might too heavily rely on the intrigue inherent to Black Bear’s unique structure — make a movie more concerned than anything with how the narrative is going to surprise us next. While it’s true that the film’s narrative kept me on my toes, its careful chaos isn’t all it has going for it. Levine skillfully tends to the details necessary to make each segment feel emotionally plausible. The first segment is rife with obligatory and stilted niceties, then conversations whose sore spots keep getting picked at until they bleed. (There’s a whole argument stemming from a long-ago discussion where Gabe bemoaned to Blair the death of traditional gender roles.) The second, teeming with long takes capturing the fast pace of a movie set, pits the high-stress environment against Allison and Gabe’s long-seething marital problems, with every possible molehill of a mishap becoming a mountain. (The segment particularly evokes, probably purposely, the topsy-turvy emotions seen in the movies of famous married director-actress duo John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands.)
In both of Black Bear’s vignettes, we anxiously wait for things to explode; by the time each has had its requisite blow, we notice how emotionally caught up we’ve gotten in the stakes of these disparate scenarios in a relatively short amount of time. Even though we’re never not aware of what the movie is doing — really it’s just a couple of speculative mico-dramas we presume stem from Levine’s own creative/romantic fears — it’s consistently in-the-moment-involving.
Black Bear’s one prominent shortcoming — though not exactly a shortcoming —
is the career-best Plaza. She gives a performance, by turns slinky and raw, that’s so startling (and startlingly good) that it accentuates the Gabe and Blair characters’ weaknesses. While Abbott and Gadon are both predictably good (they’re actors who’ve made small-scale but exciting careers on challenging themselves), they have less to do. Their characters feel more like Characters than Allison does — living action figures doing Levine’s bidding. Plaza, who seems to be imbuing a lot of herself into the character(s), zeroes in on the neuroses of these two Allisons more deftly. One wonders if she was better equipped to empathize with her characters given that, like Levine with Takal, she has worked frequently with her romantic partner (writer-director Jeff Baena), too. Initially in Black Bear Plaza seems to be doing yet another riff on the inexhaustible dry-funny acting style with which she’s become associated. Like the movie she’s starring in, it’s exciting to see how things unravel — and how they’ll deviate from our immediate expectations. B+