Written by: Lawrence Michael Levine
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon, Paola Lázaro, Grantham Coleman
Emotions play a large part in human decision making, which makes it ripe for manipulation and control for anyone daring enough to try it. The higher the stakes in these emotions, the more dangerous these actions get and the more harmful the impact ends up as explored in the harrowing and thoroughly entertaining Black Bear. Jealousy, manipulation, and desire all get encapsulated with isolation and very good looking people.
Young filmmaker Allison (Aubrey Plaza) decides to stay at a remote Bed and Breakfast to get away from the world and focus on her next project. At this accommodation, she spends time with the couple running it, Blair (Sarah Gadon) and Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and while the night starts out pleasantly, things begin to get tense.
Much has been made about the power of directors and how much they contribute to film projects and I’m part of it as well in my reviews where I give them the lion’s share of the credit for the success and/or disappointment of the projects. With this power, at times, directors feel like they need more than simple instructions to guide their actors and resort to other stranger tactics to get the proper reaction and performance from their talents. This becomes a large focal point of the story within Black Bear, which does not appear to be imminent when it starts. However, this film becomes more than meets the eye in the first few scenes and while the connection of the madness does not come together, at the very least it starts conversations.
The first act of Black Bear gives the impression of a specific type of movie, which could have been its own in the untrustworthy and sexiness of it all but the switch it makes in its narrative is both unexpected but also thrilling in its own way. It proves to be more than initially meets the eye and thus switches the roles of the characters seen in the beginning. Why this switch occurs does not make itself clear but it demonstrates how the audience gets manipulated in this game just as much as the characters. They think they know one thing, but someone’s pulling the strings from the other side and at any moment Black Bear can pull the rug from under us, which kept me continually bracing myself for what would come next. The second act of the film allows for everything to be seen from a different layer and lens and we get to pull back the curtain and see the wizard.
Within these scenes, the actors in them work on multiple levels but deliver equally thrilling and sensual performances. With these three characters in a Bed and Breakfast far away from others, the sexual tension builds almost immediately as no one appears to be honest. It does not happen with Allison as she continually lies to her hosts about her background. Blair and Gabe also cannot seem to keep themselves on the same page about what they want in life. In moments Allison found herself in the awkward situation of being between a couple who are about to yell their larynxes out at each other, but you serve as the only roadblock due to being a guest. It continues to simmer there along with the sexual tension as well to create an explosive set of events all before the narrative shift occurs and recontextualizes everything you have just seen.
If anything, Black Bear proves we do not deserve Aubrey Plaza, as she delivers yet another astounding performance in her own weird way. It became refreshing to see her in such a relatively laid-back role in Happiest Season to show she has the range to do whatever she wants much like in Ingrid Goes West. With her work as Allison, she instantly evoked Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? She had these outbursts that felt natural to the character because of the manipulation at play all for the sake of art. Allison becomes the victim of the dangerous mixing of the artform and reality where it gets to the point where she cannot tell what is real and what works as a figment of her imagination. Plaza absolutely owns this film but it does not take away from the wonderful contributions by Sarah Gadon and Christopher Abbott. They fit their dual roles so well in creating the allure of these characters and how they fit into the story.
So much can be parsed through and examined in Black Bear, which would require spoilers I am unwilling to provide but I can ensure this film will cause plenty of conversation either with the people around you or yourself. Nothing about it can be seen as conventional or uninteresting, as it serves as the antithesis to both of those characteristics. Instead, it takes a dive into the worst the toxic behavior in the service of art can get. A truly riveting piece of cinema that can certainly get more rewarding on multiple rewatches.