Wednesday 21 April 2021


Successful indie filmmaker Allison (Aubrey Plaza), visits a lakeside cabin owned by married couple Gabe and Blair (Sarah Gadon and Christopher Abbott) for some relaxation whilst she works on her latest script. As they all sit down for dinner together and the tensions between musician Gabe and his pregnant wife Blair start to flare up, heated conversation turns into bitter accusations of infidelity, and a shift in their dynamics reveals the full extent of who is lying to us and their motivations for doing so.

The second feature film of Lawrence Michael Levine (after his 2014 debut Wild Canaries, starring Alia Shawkat, Jason Ritter and himself), Black Bear arrives with some fanfare after its debut at last year's Sundance, and not without justification. A sexually charged mystery with layers of intrigue and a 180 turn you won't predict, what stands out most in need of praise are the performances, in particular Plaza as the manipulative and - at least on some level - deceitful Allison. She is the most forthright and abrasive character of the core trio, seemingly unconcerned about how her actions would effect the pregnant Blair, holding information back to toy with her host and paint a different picture of herself, before the second portion of the film shows that Allison's not the only one who's capable of plotting a story for her own amusement.

In a cast that comes pre-loaded with indie cred, alongside Plaza is Christopher Abbott, increasingly headed towards major stardom after impressive turns in It Comes At Night, Piercing and this year's Possessor. His character is selfish, obnoxious and manipulative of the two women he shares the cabin with, failing to hide his misogyny and true personality (plus defects) to them, and us, blaming feminism for the decline of the traditional American family and the rise of nationalism. It's these ideas of duplicity and performance that are at the heart of the film, none more so in the stand-out performance of Plaza as a woman pushed to her emotional limits by the cruel, callous, deceptive acts of an other. 

Once the power structure in the film flips on its head and destructive domestic disputes suddenly spill out for all present to see, both Plaza and writer/director Levine are on record that this takes inspiration from real life experiences both have faced when working on film sets with respective partners, asking important questions about how far boundaries can be pushed in the creation of art, and the emotional toil actors - willingly or not - will go through in the pursuit of a believable performance. If you're aware of the cruel treatment of Shelley Duvall on the set of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining that lead to her abandoning her acting career, think along those lines.

To say much more about the film's second mode would be a spoiler for what is a genuinely surprising and intriguing set-up, but I will say that the way Black Bear shifts the direction of its story after the conclusion of the first chapter brings to mind David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, whilst also staying more grounded in reality than those two. It's a film that ably injects real tension between its characters in its first half via a flirty foxtrot, then twists the narrative into something that is recognisable but different from before in order to allow its cast to show what they're capable of in a world that is both more farcical but troubling. It's an often tough, harrowing watch, but given the layer of artifice that's built into the film's narrative there's an ever-present distance as an audience that's hard to shake. As such, it's near impossible to provide a wholly satisfying narrative conclusion, but it's the performances (chiefly that of Plaza) that will stay with you long after the film has wrapped.



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