In “Black Bear” three people with truckloads of emotional baggage spend a weekend at a remote rustic lakeside lodge. At least that’s how it starts. But then with practically no notice whatsoever the story shifts, rearranging its characters and using the lodge as the location for a movie shoot. The two halves are threaded together by some light narrative trickery and your ultimate enjoyment of the film may hinge on how well the film’s final five minutes work for you.
“Black Bear” is branded as part drama, part dark comedy but mining the humor out of this biting indie is quite the task. The film starts as a searing “Virginia Woolf”-lite story, turns into an merciless deconstruction of the creative process, and then ends with a twist that left me impressed by its craftiness but unsure of how I was supposed to feel. In one sense I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen in large part thanks to the superb acting from the film’s central trio. At the same time it left me cold and emotionally detached from its characters especially after its mid-point switcheroo.
In the film Aubrey Plaza plays Allison, an actress turned director with a deep disdain for compliments. She’s made a handful of “small unpopular films” and is currently writing the script for her next feature. But writer’s block has set in causing her to take some time off to hopefully find her inspiration. She arrives at the lodge-like country home that’s owned by Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his rightfully insecure (and pregnant) girlfriend Blair (Sarah Gadon).
We quickly discover that both Gabe and Blair have hit their own set of roadblocks. He’s a struggling musician and her dancing career has sputtered. Even worse their relationship has hit a wall and neither can say a word without irritating the other. Allison not only gets caught up in the friction but sprinkles gas on the fire. Fueled by fiercely combustible back-and-forths, the dialogue-thick first half is simple in concept but really lets the characters uncoil and the three performances are in top form.
Then writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine hits reset. The second half starts with the same opening scene, Allison sitting on a dock blankly staring across the foggy water. But this time she’s filming a scene for a movie directed by a stressed out Gabe. This time Allison and Gabe are husband and wife while Blair is the intrusive third wheel. And instead of the first half’s more intimate three-person setting, now the house is filled with film crew members. None of them are particularly interesting and they nibble away at screen time that could have been better spent on the three main characters.
To be fair the second half is going for something different. It still revolves around a strained relationship and the same trio of characters are the centerpiece. But it also pays a lot of attention to the movie set and the filmmaking process. Admittedly some of it is interesting but it doesn’t have the same draw as the first half. There are also some wild swings at humor that don’t connect, such as a weird running gag where everyone keeps spilling coffee. Seems like it belongs in a different movie.
Ultimately too much of the film’s second half feels like something made for those who are ‘in the know’ when it comes to moviemaking. The performances remain top-notch throughout with Plaza doing some career best work. But the two halves, though cleverly explained in the final frames, clash more than connect. Both have similar toxic underpinning, but only one grabbed my attention and left me feeling something. “Black Bear” opened December 4th in select theaters and is now available on VOD.
VERDICT – 2.5 STARS