Now on Hulu, Black Bear is an offbeat comedy-drama, and that description does it little justice. I say this because the movie demands that type of step-back-and-look-at-yourself meta-analysis, because that’s exactly what the movie does to itself, circling itself like it’s a garbage can full of watermelon rinds and chicken bones and its consciousness is, I dunno, a hungry wild black bear. Lawrence Michael Levine directs this, for lack of a better phrase, unconventionally structured movie, albeit one whose treacherous, Escher-ous (sorry!) architecture takes a back seat to a career performance by Aubrey Plaza.
BLACK BEAR: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Allison (Plaza) sits on a dock in a red bathing suit, staring into the fog. She walks to a nearby house, opens a notebook and starts writing. Cut to: Allison being dropped off by a cab and greeted by Gabe (Christopher Abbott), who carries her suitcase as they head up a long dirt road to the same house where she opened a notebook and started writing. It’s a large, multi-story home, rustic and gorgeous; to say it’s a “cabin” is to call a Bengal tiger a stray cat. Gabe and his partner Blair (Sarah Gadon) treat it as a B&B for creative types, friends of friends looking for a retreat. Note that I didn’t say it’s a “quiet” retreat – at least not for Allison, because she’s soon roped into the middle of Gabe and Blair’s dysfunctional domestic squabbling, and it’ll drive you mad that she doesn’t quite succeed at extracting herself from it.
Actually, maybe she doesn’t want to. Maybe she thrives on this type of conflict – or even fuels it. Blair is pregnant and Gabe is a currently unemployed musician. On the way to the dock, Allison seems to purposely give him an eyeful of that red bathing suit while Blair watches. And then we loop-de-loop: Allison sits on a dock in a red bathing suit, staring into the fog. She walks to a nearby house, opens a notebook and starts writing. This is very obviously the same scene as before, but it doesn’t feel like one of those usual narrative tricks where the movie opens with an exciting and suspenseful moment then jumps back and builds to that moment, because the act of Allison sitting on a dock in a red bathing suit, staring into the fog then walking to a nearby house and opening a notebook and starting writing isn’t inherently exciting and suspenseful. Is it?
There’s a dinner scene in which the three characters eat and drink maybe a little too much that becomes quite the scene, as in “making a scene,” and even though no one else is in the movie with them to witness the making of a scene, we definitely are watching it. Blair frustratingly drinks three, or is it four, glasses of wine, despite being pregnant. Gabe frustratingly infuriates everyone by making dumb, backwards anti-feminist statements. Allison frustratingly acts like one of those people who might be serious or might be joking but it’s impossible to tell which; she also frustratingly doesn’t do what we all would do, namely, get the hell out of the room when a couple you barely know is having a tense and heated couple’s spat. This is when you might begin not quite trusting this narrative, especially considering the weird tone of the sequence in which Allison sits on a dock in a red bathing suit, staring into the fog then walking to a nearby house and opening a notebook and starting writing, especially the second time around. I have the benefit of having seen the entirety of Black Bear and can confirm that you shouldn’t trust it, for reasons I can’t get into because, you know, SPOILERS, although in order to do the “memorable dialogue” thing below, I have to reveal that there are more than three characters in this movie.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: She isn’t just Parks and Rec and, uh, Dirty Grandpa – Plaza is something of a secret thespian with a good eye for ambitious indie films like this, which shake off easy classification and demand nimble performances: See Ingrid Goes West, Safety Not Guaranteed and Life After Beth.
Performance Worth Watching: Plaza, voice star of Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever, has a reputation as a very funny kind of post-acting actor, ironically distanced and glaring your sorry tuckus into next week. The lead role in Black Bear suits her perfectly for this reason, but not this reason alone, because it allows her to show significant range and emotion, and multiple layers of character. It’s a performance not easily shaken, and easily her best work yet.
Memorable Dialogue: Cahya (Paola Lazaro): “You had Pepto all this time?”
Sex and Skin: Brief Plaza bottomlessness; an awkward sex scene that might be a little sexy but also might not be a little sexy.
Our Take: Black Bear is a very tense, suspenseful movie, and it’s a real S.O.B. of a very tense, suspenseful movie because it stubbornly refuses to show its hand. It not only circles itself with that sequence in which Allison sits on a dock and you know, etc., but routinely challenges us: With its intermingled dark comedy and dark drama tones. With an unreliable narrator. With characters so rarely do what we, being calm and reasonable people, would do in the situation as presented.
Blair, Gabe and Allison existing in the same scene is a portrait of nuclear neuroticism – defensiveness, fibbery, a tendency to mischaracterize another character’s statement in a wholly negative and destructive light, the type of stuff that screams THERAPY, PLEASE. You may abhor all of them, but also struggle to disengage, primarily to find out what Levine is teasing, what he’s trying to say. He hooks us with that sequence, that carefully realized sequence in which Allison sits on a dock in a red bathing suit, staring into the fog then walks to a nearby house and opens a notebook and starts writing. You know the sequence.
But the film isn’t unpredictable for its own sake. Levine heel-turns partway through the film and more pointedly starts getting at what he’s getting at, all while a large carnivorous creature seems to lurk in the woods outside, being itself. As I mentioned before, more characters turn up, two of whom discuss the mind games being played in a certain situation that shall remain vague because you’ll enjoy it more when it’s not revealed ahead of time, mind games that are also being played on us, perhaps. The comedy gets broader, the drama gets more recognizably heavy, the movie becomes about other things, such as gender dynamics and feminism and storytelling itself, and about itself, but also about the act of being about itself. Don’t judge it for its self-awareness, which is good when it’s not self-indulgent, which it quite frequently isn’t.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Black Bear is an arduous but rewarding watch, and you don’t have to have sat on a dock in a red bathing suit and all that to appreciate its unusual angles on the art of making art.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.
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