If Aubrey Plaza already had a lock on a certain kind of manic, impulsive, scheming indie protagonist — see her 2017 Sundance doubleheader of Ingrid Goes West and The Little Hours — then Black Bear, a triumphantly disorienting work of meta filmmaking from Lawrence Michael Levine (Wild Canaries), gives the typecasting a surrealist new dimension. As the film begins, Plaza’s Allison feels like a character you’ve seen her play before, intruding upon the lives of others, seemingly from outer space, only for her motives to immediately appear suspect. Then, with a single cut to black midway through, everything we just watched demands reconsideration.
Fueled by surprise and layered with an intoxicating dream logic, Black Bear is the kind of discovery you hope for at Sundance: wholly unexpected, compellingly demanding, and utterly unique. Plaza is ferocious at the movie’s center, but on either side of her are similarly, enormously powerful performances from Christopher Abbott (James White) and Sarah Gadon (Indignation), who play a couple living in a remote Adirondacks lake house, and are tested after inviting the enigmatic Allison (Plaza), a filmmaker and former actor, into their home.
The movie works on several levels. The first part plays like a viciously fun relationship comedy, Allison smirking through a long, dark, drunken night in which Abbott’s Gabe and Gadon’s Blair obsessively pick at each other. Allison, who’s visiting for a sort of retreat-inspiration getaway, gets off on their dysfunction — resentment? — and sustains it by dropping biographical tidbits into the conversation that may or may not be true: her mother’s sudden death, her retirement from acting, her hatred of compliments, her inability to cook.
That last point kicks off a discussion of men and women and work that goes on and on but never gets boring; Gabe reveals his fondness for traditional gender roles, Blair her disgust at that fact. Blair drinks more and more, despite being two months pregnant, and picks up on sexual attraction developing between Gabe and Allison. The writing is fizzy and delightful, the performances explosively committed. But I was most taken by Levine’s direction here. He conjures an arresting mood in this setting, and lets his actors and dialogue propel one very extended, very stationary sequence.
You can’t take your eyes off it. One reason is that you know all is not as it appears. Or that something will, for lack of a better word, happen. It’d be too cruel to this movie’s intentions and successes to give much away, but the dynamics between Allison, Gabe, and Blair shift abruptly and dramatically, and some early scenes get broken apart or mirrored. Yet even as things get weird, they stay true.
As to what it all means? That may be beside the point. Black Bear evolves into an interrogation of what we expect from those we know, from those we hardly know at all, and from the movies that smack those feelings on screen. There are fascinating questions raised about the link between artistic expression and romantic love, as well as, more deeply, how we might imagine our own lives. But this film, for the most part, is a trip. It’s brainy, sure, but the emotional experience is what’s most vivid. The plot beats may confound you, but the feelings behind them are crystal-clear.
Plaza is our guide through the madness, her characteristic wryness giving way to overpowering pain. We’re right there, so uncomfortably close to Allison, with every twist and turn Black Bear takes, every shift from reality to nightmare (or fantasy?) and back again. She’s not the movie’s secret weapon, really, since her impact is so constantly visible. But she is the key to why Levine’s experimental conceit not only works, but thrives, a pitch-black immersion into artistic process and fulfillment and disappointment that winds its way, somehow, toward a state of peace. A-