I’m not entirely sure I’d call Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear a totally satisfying experience, but it features a heckuva lead performance and I’m still trying to figure out of its puzzle of a plot. This is an arthouse movie about characters involved in arthouse filmmaking. They’re self-indulgent, needy, usually drunk or stoned, and they often have fascinating conversations and arguments with each other. There is also the distinct possibility that none of what we’re witnessing is actually happening. I’m not sure. And I think that’s the way Levine intended it.
Aubrey Plaza is Allison, a former indie actress turned director. She’s got writer’s block and retreats to a secluded lake house in the Adirondacks to refuel. Or maybe not. Solitude is not her primary goal as the property is inhabited by struggling musician Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant wife Blair (Sarah Gadon). They’re far from a perfect couple as they constantly bicker about big subjects like gender roles and whether Gabe is still actually in the music business (she’s not sure 53 cent royalties qualify). During their boozy evening together and with even the expectant Blair imbibing, Allison reveals some details about her life. Or maybe not as we begin to suspect this could all be her way of dismantling an already disgruntled couple’s marriage. A more conventional movie would have this build into a thriller about a romantic triangle.
That is certainly not the direction Black Bear follows. Without divulging too much, the picture is divided in half. The second portion involves the making of a movie where roles from the previous hour are reversed. When we are in the first part, Plaza is basically playing a variation of other roles we’ve seen her in. She’s deadpan, dry, and mostly unbothered by her strange surroundings. It particularly bothers Blair that she can never tell when Allison is being serious or funny. When the switch flips midway through, we see a damaged and emotional wreck slugging and swigging her way toward a hoped for artistic breakthrough. Her performance is remarkable to behold.
Black Bear is often pitch black in its comedy. Abbott’s Gabe goes from hapless hubby to over-the-top auteur over the course of the proceedings. The screenplay’s treatment of him as director is pretty brutal with his self seriousness and crew members around him that are forced to take him seriously. His dichotomous part is challenging as well and he pulls it off.
There’s a moment early on when Allison tries to explain her process for writing and coming up with ideas. In short, she can’t. She mumbles about finding something meaningful to happen. In the second part of this experience, we see the lengths of artists trying to achieve something meaningful. They might be misguided in their methods, but I think Levine is both satirizing and celebrating how anything gets made or written at all. Or maybe not. Maybe there’s just a half formed idea that keeps getting interrupted by a furry animal that comes out of nowhere and you have to start all over again.
*** (out of four)