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‘Black Bear’ Review: Aubrey Plaza is the most unreliable of narrators

You don’t have to trust her to acknowledge 'Black Bear' as one of the most fascinating films of the year.

Aubrey Plaza in 'Black Bear'.
(Image: © Momentum Pictures)

Our Verdict

You don’t have to trust the narrator to acknowledge 'Black Bear' as one of the most fascinating films of the year.

For

  • 🐻Amazing performances from the three leads, especially Aubrey Plaza.
  • 🐻Metafictional storytelling at its finest.
  • 🐻Genuinely jarring twists.

Against

  • 🐻This film is not friendly to casual viewership. Prepare to marinade in it.

Black Bear opens on Aubrey Plaza getting up from her seat on a pier, going into a cabin, and sitting down to write. Before anything else happens in the film, we are given the cue to expect that what we are experiencing is a fantasy, expressed as clearly as if the curtain had raised on a play and the artifice of the stage were laid bare before us. What’s so intriguing about Black Bear, though, is that it is willfully toying with our perception of what the “truth” of the story is, giving us a potentially autobiographical glimpse into the mind of writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine that challenges us to acknowledge the difference between drawing inspiration from our lives and simply recounting events as we understand them. In other words, more than anything Black Bear is a film about the act of storytelling, forcing the audience into a level of active engagement that will drive insane those looking for a cohesive plot, but is immensely rewarding for those who converse with the motifs at play.

The film opens proper on Allison (Plaza) arriving to a remote cabin owned by Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant girlfriend Blair (Sarah Gordon). Allison is an actor-turned-director who wants the seclusion to force herself to write her next film, but is almost immediately sidetracked by Gabe’s subtle flirtations and Blair’s barely concealed jealousy. One night, the trio convene for dinner, devolving from cordial curiosity for one another’s lives to making barbed backhanded digs that unearth preexisting relationship strife between the couple and Allison’s apparently pathological tendency to provoke their antagonism.

This is a premise that lives and dies on its performances, and thankfully these three give such nuanced performances – enhanced by some evocative editing by Matthew L. Weiss – that it becomes a fascinating character study of all three. Abbott’s interpretation of Gabe as a failed artist feeling lonely because of his lack of emotional support perfectly complements Gordon’s take on Blair as a woman who feels diminished by her pregnancy and hates that Gabe is no longer attracted to her. Plaza is the centerpiece, though, playing Allison as a persistent shit-stirrer whom you can never quite tell is serious or joking, blithely dismissing Blair’s feminist appreciation for her allegedly apolitical films as projection while acting as a canvas on which Gabe will paint is lustful desires. These are three deeply flawed characters, bouncing off one another through fantastically nuanced portrayals, showing just how far great dialogue and skilled actors can make for a quality narrative.

But then Black Bear takes a turn about halfway through, abandoning a harrowing climax in favor of starting from scratch and recasting our leads into new roles. They are now using the cabin property to shoot a film that is very reminiscent of the plot we just saw unfold, but Allison’s and Blair’s roles are now reversed, both in the film and in the film-within-the-film, and Gabe is the film’s director and Allison’s husband. From here, Black Bear transforms into a dark comedy of sorts, following the chaotic ins and outs of making an independent movie and the kinds of pretentious mind games that are played between directors and actors.

The parallels between the first half and the second are what make Black Bear so interesting to parse, as it shuffles character roles, lines of dialogue, and motifs to beg the question of how this story relates to the former. Is this the story of how Allison abandoned acting to become a director? Is this the story of Gabe and Allison dramatizing and capitalizing on their fateful night with Blair? Is this a metatextual retelling of Lawrence Michael Levine’s experiences directing a different film? None of these questions can be answered in the absolute affirmative because there is so much contradictory evidence at play that there can never be a definitive answer. But answers aren’t the point, since these two halves only make a whole if you remember that you are being told a story. These are the creations of a writer, and it doesn’t matter whether these characters were created from whole cloth or if their confrontation is based on a lived experience. There’s gleeful solipsism in Levine’s obstruction of the “truth” as he constantly reminds you that the film can only ever be a collection of lies.

Aubrey Plaza really swings for the fences in the latter half, giving one of the most hypnotic and enigmatic performances of the year, and even with such strong material it just wouldn’t be the same film without her gravitational presence. She grounds the entire fiction in her personality, and she is the axis upon which we’re forced to examine how we internalize our relationship to what’s been shown to us. After all, within this film’s framing devise – another layer of fiction, remember – she is the writer, and how are we to trust anything she says? In the end, you don’t have to trust her to acknowledge Black Bear as one of the most fascinating films of the year.

Black Bear is available on VOD on December 4, 2020.