Most aspiring writers, at one point or another, receive the advice to “write what you know”. Clearly, filmmaker Lawrence Michael Levine has taken that to heart with his tricky, startling, engaging feature, Black Bear. Transposing himself, possibly onto more than one character, Levine has made a film about filmmaking, artistic control, identity, marital fidelity, feminism, and perhaps a few dozen other topics rolled into a psychodrama/thriller hybrid.
Aubrey Plaza plays Allison, a filmmaker with a case of writer’s block, who rents a room from a couple in the Adirondack Mountains of northeastern New York seeking inspiration for her next project. The couple, Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant girlfriend Blair (Sarah Gadon), welcome Allison into their remote cabin, and for the first hour or so of the film, engage in a broad-ranging discussion, exposing the cracks in their relationships. Every barbed retort and glance feels loaded, with the enigmatic Allison holding her cards close to her chest. Is she intentionally whipping up tension between the pair or vice versa? It comes across as a mumblecore Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, but with a whipping, curious handheld camera style bringing us uncomfortably close to every micro expression. In this passage, all three actors excel, with Plaza breaking free of her usual deadpan Goth Girl act to present someone seemingly in control of the narrative, possibly spinning as many lies as truths. She’s like a simmering Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) from Mike Nichols’ masterpiece, biding her time and waiting to strike at George (Richard Burton) at any moment.
Then, when things come to a head, Levine throws a twist at the audience, turning the film in on itself, forcing us to rethink everything that has come before. I won’t spoil the surprise, but suffice it to say, he pulls off his jarring switch with great skill and infuses what could have been a three-handed chamber piece into something louder, more crowded, and infinitely more frenetic. Abbott and Gadon beautifully switch gears, establishing a completely different dynamic, with mischievous sparks replacing the distrust from earlier. In a blazing tour de force, Plaza presents herself as far more tempestuous, susceptible to every little slight, going on a tear through this section in a blast of female rage. The storyteller seemingly loses control of her own narrative and plays a corrosive game of lashing out, retreating, rinsing and repeating.
The whole time, the title character lurks somewhere out there in the woods, either metaphorically or literally able to bring down this whole house of cards. Levine seems to say that we are all one disaster away from losing ourselves, so we had better take control of our lives now. Instead of tying things up neatly, he ends the film with a question mark, looping us around to his initial premise with such ease. While small and perhaps a little too specific regarding the filmmaking process, Black Bear serves as a calling card for Levine and as a “Welcome To The Major Leagues” for Plaza, who has often presented one droll note yet here flexes her muscles gloriously. Its “inside baseball” look at the process of making movies may turn off casual viewers, but the film, like Plaza’s character, may just be crazy enough to break through.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Black Bear opens in theaters and on demand Friday December 4th.