2020, R, 104 min. Directed by Lawrence Michael Levine. Starring Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon, Grantham Coleman, Lindsay Burdge, Paola Lázaro.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Dec. 4, 2020
There is a carefully sustained mood pulsing through Black Bear – the latest film from independent writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine – a frisson of giddy dread that locks on to the viewer with a tenacious glee, much like the titular animal that creeps around the gorgeous lake house where the film takes place. The source of that power emanates from Aubrey Plaza. She has a look of eternally cool omniscience, one smartly utilized by filmmakers. It’s as if at any moment she could lift the veil, revealing a secret world, but finds it much more fun to treat us as her cat’s-paws. Levine takes full advantage of this, spinning the film around her character, Allison, a filmmaker who has journeyed to the home of Gabe (Abbott) and Blair (Gadon), a couple who has opened their home to creatives as a space to work.
What begins as slightly uncomfortable acquaintance-making evolves over an evening of dinner and drinks into a nerve-racking assault of verbal salvos tossed and gestating wounds ripped open. Gabe is an unemployed musician who clings to an idea that women were much happier before feminism screwed everything up, as his very pregnant wife drinks too much wine and rebukes him at every turn. It’s a wicked update on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with Allison’s agent provocateur casually fanning the flames. Gabe and Blair have come to loathe each other, and watching that come to light is a wickedly funny, breathtaking experience that leaves the viewer reeling from recognitions of unpleasant truths, culminating in a worst case scenario for everyone involved. But as you recover from one rug being pulled, Levine is busy tugging on another. He’s not quite done yet.
Black Bear is a continuation of themes revolving around identity and creation that have been preoccupying Levine for some time. He wrote the wonderfully creepy 2016 film Always Shine, which was directed by his wife/collaborator Sophia Takal (2019’s Black Christmas). That film, while evoking Bergman’s Persona, was also a clever riff on manipulation. And the machinations of manipulation are revealed as the heart of Black Bear. Levine’s characters employ by-any-means-necessary tactics to harness pain to achieve truth in the creative process, just as Levine orchestrates those same methods on the audience. It is an exhilarating feat of control, and a scathing deconstruction of the sacrifices made in the name of art. You have to confront those threatening corners of the psyche. You have to embrace the black bear.