Writer-Director Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear mesmerises with its performances from its three leads. Aubrey Plaza is a tour-de-force in what has to be considered her best performance. Equally, Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon are perfect foils as their passive-aggressiveness and angst towards one another comes to a head.
At a remote lake house, an actress turned filmmaker Allison (Aubrey Plaza) plays a calculated game of desire and jealousy with her B &B hosts Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon) in the pursuit of a work of art that blurs the boundaries between autobiography and invention.
From the awkward but flirtatious walk in the opening with Gabe and Allison at the beginning of Black Bear, you are set up for stress-inducing time that you should never have in a gorgeous looking Lake House in New York State. Every interaction is rife with tension that you know there can be no happy ending with this trio. The dinner scene in the opening act is full of passive-aggressiveness that you wonder how on earth Gabe and Blair have co-existed until now. With each comment from one brings derision to their other half, the tension and stress build upon the audience. As it continues throughout Black Bear, it becomes unbearable, but in the most enthrallingly cringy way, as if we are guests encountering these awkward exchanges with no ways or means to escape.
Yet this passive-aggressiveness isn’t just for our couple to keep to themselves; from the first time they meet, Allison and Blair throw seemingly pleasant lines at one another. Yet, we can clearly see the lack of sincerity behind it. Never has “You’re really pretty” come across so offensive, and boy is Allison full with these “compliments” as the first half continues. Allison’s subsequent arrival is the switch required to set off this ticking time bomb of a relationship. As the two’s bickering increases, coupled with Blair’s insecurities over how she looks and how she should act due to her pregnancy, Allison takes advantage of the struggle to have her own fun.
Plaza is phenomenal here, especially considering how different her performances are in the film’s two halves. The first half is almost a stereotypical Plaza drama performance as she is standoffish but calculating. Whereas in the latter half, she is completely unfurled as a character. It truly opens your eyes to see her capabilities as an actress and cause you to want to make sure she is never brought back to the typecast roles of before. This is a challenging performance, and Plaza excels as she takes the ball and runs with it as an emotional fireball.
Abbott and Gadon are not to be outdone by Plaza here, and thank goodness so as they can compliment Plaza with their own equally complex performances. The rising anger and fury built up in Gadon’s Blair in that opening half stay with you. Whether you have been in a position of being so positively angry at a friend or partner, you feel for her, and you just want to reassure her that everything will be okay.
They need to be on her level to allow the film to succeed. While Aubrey Plaza is a tour-de-force here, you are lured in by the other two fine actors in this wonderful trio. The film would not work if they gave us something different as Levine and the director of photography Robert Leitzell’s lens, knows when to get in close and when to take a step back from the drama. Never do we feel like we are watching a film; the immersive nature, as said, as if we are spying on private moments (be it in public or not), stays with you.
Interestingly Levine never tries to explain his film; there are so many topics that could be broached and deciphered without fully expanding on it that he causes you to bring a lot of yourself into the picture. What exactly are you seeing and experiencing from these moments? This open intent allows for Black Bear to stand apart from other films you will watch this year.
By the end of the film, you will wonder what exactly you saw; you can view Black Bear from a multitude of angles over its intent. Levine is purposefully keeping us at a distance from fully explaining what we see, leaving the audience to interpret so much from the 100 minutes. From a personal standpoint, the first part of the story and the apparent crumbling relationship showcase the ending of a relationship. The second half is the release or rebirth of a new life or opportunity. That is the beauty of a film like this; you could see that or experience and take away something completely different from someone next to you. By being so open, Levine and his sublime cast have given us a genuinely different film.
For as enjoyable as these layers and complexities are, the film and the cast shine brightest when it takes a step back from itself and becomes observational. The scenes such as the dinner scene in the opening half and the awkward and downright horrible to experience “discussion” on the dock between Gabe and Allison are exceptional. However, this is still a film that is practically full of glee as we witness the arguments unfold, with Levine relishing in making his audience feel uncomfortable at almost every turn.
The second half of the film takes a turn that you don’t see coming, and while it may disorientate and potentially isolate you as a viewer, it does work. Thankfully Levine allows a little bit of time for the audience to adjust, with what comes next full of non-stop fireworks, keeping all of the dark natural humour and relationship horrors that were there in the opening half. Apologies for not sharing too much about that latter half, but it does need to be experienced as clear of spoilers as possible. Characters make statements of intent that they know they can’t or won’t keep; no one is doing well.
Black Bear feels like an all too personal film from Levine, and due to how the film evolves, it becomes a film that no matter how much we know that we should turn away and let the characters have their moments of privacy; we just can’t. We are riveted in seeing how their story ends—a wonderfully spellbinding film.
BLACK BEAR will be released on UK and Irish digital platforms on 23rd April.
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