A filmmaker at a creative impasse seeks solace from her tumultuous past at a rural retreat, only to find that the woods summon her inner demons in intense and surprising ways.
Aubrey Plaza has long been one of those actresses who has an uncanny knack of elevating whatever you find her in, whether it be her roles on TV in ‘Parks and Recreation’ or ‘Legion’, or supporting roles in movies such as ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’ or last year’s Christmas movie ‘Happiest Season’. Leading roles have been fairly thin on the ground, with the excellent ‘Ingrid Goes West’ an honourable exception, so ‘Black Bear’ is really refreshing and it provides a platform for Plaza to deliver one of her finest performances yet. This is a difficult film to describe without giving much away about the plot – I will try my best, however, proceed with caution!
Our protagonist is Allison (Plaza), a young woman who we first meet sitting on the edge of a lake, in what will become a recurring motif. We learn that she is a film director and has travelled out to a remote lake house to find some inspiration for her next movie, staying with a couple (Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon) who may have spent too much time isolated from the rest of the world. This is the first part of the film (subtitled ‘The Bear in the Road’) and it focuses on the dynamic between a warring couple and the outsider who ignites jealousy in the pregnant Blair (Gadon) and attraction in the chauvinistic Gabe (Abbott). The second part (subtitled ‘The Bear in the Boat House’) takes us back to Allison sitting at the edge of the lake, yet everything is not the same as it was in the first part – the same characters are here but the dynamics are different and the relationships are not as they were when we last saw them. Is this a flashback or a flash forward or is it something else entirely? It’s to the credit of ‘Black Bear’ that it doesn’t provide easy answers to these questions.
The second part is really terrific and delves deep into the souls of the characters, particularly Allison who appears to be in the middle of some kind of breakdown. Plaza is at the top of her game at this stage, ably supported by Abbott and Gadon who deliver subtle twists on the Gabe and Blair we met in the first part of the movie. ‘Black Bear’ is the kind of film that keeps you on your toes throughout, both engrossed in the events unfolding on screen and in trying to guess how it all fits together, and I thought it was a really sharp, intriguing drama with a darkly comedic edge. Sometimes a film such as this can be too clever for its own good, but I thought this was pitched at just the right level, and between Aubrey Plaza’s stellar leading performance and Lawrence Michael Devine’s off kilter script and direction, I was really entertained by ‘Black Bear’.
Directed By: Lawrence Michael Levine
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon