Published Dec 02, 2020At the beginning of Lawrence Michael Levine's Black Bear, Blair (Sarah Gadon) and Gabe (Christopher Abbott) sit outside their colossal lake house in the Adirondack Mountains. They eat dinner with their quippy yet enigmatic guest, Allison (Aubrey Plaza), who had just arrived at the house that day.
Over bottomless wine glasses, Blair and Gabe begin throwing passive aggressive, tight-lipped digs at one another. Allison awkwardly glances down at her plate, but occasionally chimes in with a sarcastic comment or outlandish story, all with the deadpan delivery that Plaza is known for. Blair looks at Allison with wide, incredulous eyes, and tells her, "You're really hard to read." With changing character identities and a blurry line between reality and make believe, it's a quote that could very well serve as the film's poster slogan.
Black Bear premiered at the Sundance in January 2020 and is Levine's third film as writer-director. From start to finish, it is tense and shrouded with mystery, barely giving the audience small pockets of breathing room before cutting right back to its dense atmosphere.
Allison, a filmmaker and former actress, visits Blair and Gabe's picturesque lake house, which they have just started opening up to guests to make some extra cash, to find inspiration for her next project. Blair is pregnant with Gabe's baby, but it's clear from the first moment we see them on screen together that things between them are anything but romantic. Allison quickly gets tangled up in the couple's dynamic, and dark truths emerge to the surface — at least, this is how the film begins. The story then morphs into what feels like an alternate dimension, with the same characters taking entirely different roles and positions, the lake house transforming into a film set, and even more mystery and uncertainty bubbling beneath the character's facades.
Aubrey Plaza gives a stellar performance. She seamlessly portrays Allison switching between being alluring, apathetic, and wracked with drunken tears and screams. Audiences will attempt to figure out the puzzle of Allison in the film's first half, and their hearts will subsequently break for her in the second half. It is surely a defining role in Plaza's career thus far. Sarah Gadon also shines brightly, easily slipping into the roles of both the neglected pregnant girlfriend and a charming, mischievous woman. Christopher Abbott plays the passive aggressive, bitter and manipulative Gabe extremely convincingly. The trio play off of each other's intense performances, creating a chemistry that may feel unconventional but is nonetheless iron-strong.
The film is also as visually alluring as it is cryptic, just like the story itself. Robert Leitzell's cinematography draws the eye into a scene: the stark red of Allison's swim suit against the gray waters and skies, the symmetry of the lake looking like it will swallow the characters whole if they get too close to it, the blur of a black bear — yes, an actual black bear — lurking somewhere in the dark forest.
It's likely that Black Bear's conclusion will leave many audience members scratching their heads, unsatisfied and holding out their hands for more after such an intense buildup. But the questions the film poses are timeless, especially in an age of endless entertainment being produced: what boundaries exist when an artist creates? What price do artists pay for their art? And how do the relationships that artists have change as their craft evolves, or even becomes destructive? The film may not give clear-cut answers to these questions, but, through the story of three people's convoluted and forever-intermingled lives, audiences will surely ponder them long after the credits have finished rolling. (Momentum)