'Black Bear' With Aubrey Plaza Is Madly Intoxicating [Sundance Review]

A woman in a red swimsuit sits on a wooden pier in the murky fog, only to later walk into a room, sit at a table, and write in her notebook. Lawrence Michael Levine uses the same sequence three separate times during his film as a capitalization and period to a film constantly re-editing itself. The writer is Allison (Aubrey Plaza) and she’s suffering from writer’s block, and Levin’s “Black Bear” blends the lines between reality and art in a swirling hysterical cacophony of manipulation in service of a bold narrative.  

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“Black Bear” is split between two parts: “The Bear in the Road” and “The Bear by the Boathouse.” “The Bear in the Road” finds Allison, a now semi-retired actor, but director arriving to a Adirondacks lake house for inspiration. Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon) own the retreat. Unmarried, the latter is pregnant with the former’s child. Nevertheless, from the moment Gabe and Allison lock eyes they’re smitten, often sharing furtive glances and not so subtle innuendos. 

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With a limited set, every action occurs around the lake house, and with only three characters, for the most part, the first half of “Black Bear” develops like a comedic play. After pleasantries are exchanged between the parties, the section crescendos in one room over wine. Gabe and Blair snipe at each other, debating over the role of women: with Gabe decrying the crumbling of traditional gender roles in opposition to Blair’s feminist beliefs. Meanwhile, Allison purposely provokes the couple through cynical asides and by agreeing with Gabe’s moronic opinions, much to the disdain of Blair. Allison craves chaos, swirling a glass of wine while reducing the couple to petty squabbling. In her cynical dark devil may care stare is a character not unwholly different to the one Plaza played in “Ingrid Goes West.” 

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The in-fighting of the first section spontaneously develops through Levine relying on his actors to inhabit their lines, causing the verbal backstabbing to comedically rise to the top, concluding in startling fashion. Nevertheless, “Black Bear” restarts. The second half “The Bear by the Boathouse” morphs the narrative into a meta-commentary on independent filmmaking. Blair, Allison, and Gabe completely shift, and we’re given nearly the same film in a different format. 

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But most of all, “Black Bear” in its efforts to deconstruct independent filmmaking, the type that’s truly done on a shoelace budget with minimal crew, questions the still utilized methods of artistic creation. During the comedy’s second half, the camera switches from mounted and still, to shaky, handheld, and documentarian. In a dreamlike state, the second half reuses scenes and conversations from the first half for new meaning. Furthermore, Levine examines the role of method acting, the quest for the perfect shot, and the director as a Godlike figure on set. 

In all of these fashions, the comedy’s three main players each provide incredible showcases. Plaza, who keeps boundless threads at her fingertips, morphs from confident provocateur in the first half to heartbroken drunk manic wife during the second, while Gadon shifts from hardcore liberal sidepiece to muse and accomplice. Each performance is effortless, quickly locking in new character dynamics tightly. The ease stems from Levin’s sharp but winking dialogue, which allows each character to be the worst version of their archetype, and a trio of actors who aren’t deterred by a film that never wholly conforms to reality. Unique and unfazed, hilarious yet philosophical, “Black Bear” is the comedic form reinvented and re-conformed to mad and intoxicating ends. [A-]    

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