Allison is an actress who gave up her craft to become a filmmaker. With her mother dead and no husband, she goes alone to a house in the woods owned by the young couple Gabe (who questions feminism) and pregnant Blair, hoping something will happen that will spark her muse and produce a watchable movie. Or does she? Is she a filmmaker or an actress or both or neither? Did her mother die? Does she have a husband? The consummate untrustworthy narrator, Allison tells Gabe the first evening of her arrival, “I’ve been lying since the second I got here.”
That line, along with the puzzling incompatibility of Gabe and Blair and several distortions of time sequence early on, is a clue that “Black Bear” is the latest in an intriguing body of work that includes Christopher Nolan’s 2000 “Memento,” where one story line moves backwards in time, and Charlie Kaufman’s 2020 “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” whose narrative chronology is close to impenetrable, and whose characters resist clarity and definition.
Writer and director Lawrence Michael Levine uses filmmaking as the place to explore authenticity; Gabe directs, and Blair and Allison act in, the film that is made in the 2nd of two episodes/stories that constitute “The Bear.” Is Allison more authentic when acting within the “straightforward” narrative (episode 1), or more authentic when manipulated to express powerful, and deeply felt, emotions for the camera? When Blair describes Allison’s statements as “solipsism,” Allison responds that she doesn’t know the word, only later to acknowledge she is familiar with the concept. That interchange could describe Levine’s film. Is what we are viewing just in the mind of one person—most likely Allison, who is writing chapter titles?
The strength of “Black Bear” lies in part in the credible acting of the three principals (the others count for little): Christopher Abbott as Gabe, Sarah Gadon as Blair, and above all Aubrey Plaza, best known as a deadpan TV comedian, who here shows emotional depth and a wide range of feelings. From the ironic, cool, untrustworthy persona who opens the film, she emerges as someone who experiences great pain, pain that comes across as real even as she plays a manipulated actress rather than the writer behind the scenes. In a story that interrogates the idea of reality, the character arc that Plaza creates is a substantial achievement.
At the very least, ‘Black Bear’ is an exceedingly clever film with a compelling conceit and emotive punch; ‘life imitates art’ is performed before our eyes.
The comedic aspects of the movie rely on the making of an independent film on a shoestring in one location (the house and its boathouse on Long Lake in the Adirondacks), with time constraints. The stoned and drunk crew members spill coffee, lose track of the cue lines, have diarrhea (a tilapia joke, told too often), and race to the bathroom. Some will find this softening of an intense and moving drama to be silly and, worse, distracting.
Whether it’s too clever, overly contrived—a failed post-modern experiment—may be in the eye of the beholder.
Levine’s disruptions of the traditional narrative and the posing of existential issues involving solipsism and authenticity are worthy of attention. At the very least, “Black Bear” is an exceedingly clever film with a compelling conceit and emotive punch; “life imitates art” is performed before our eyes. Whether it’s too clever, overly contrived—a failed post-modern experiment—may be in the eye of the beholder.
Stars: 3 (out of 4)
Director: Lawrence Michael Levine
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon
Runtime: 104 minutes
Other Awards: 2 wins (for Plaza) and 14 nominations to date
Availability: for rent or purchase on multiple sites, including Google Play, Redbox and Apple TV; see JustWatch here.
Lead image: Allison (Aubrey Plaza) is isolated on the dock, or is she?