There’s something immediately and oddly sinister about Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear (2020). Opening with the bizarre image of a tearful woman (Aubrey Plaza) sitting on a dock in a red swimsuit, writer-director Levine builds up an atmosphere of dread right away, the eerie score by Giulio Carmassi and Bryan Scary putting us further on edge as we watch her barely keeping herself together. It’s a compelling scene that will repeat several times throughout the film, each iteration more wonderful than the last and unravelling this strange story in a way that will have us questioning everything.
That misty, quiet dock isn’t the only thing about this setting that appears to be off. Even the gorgeous, wooded landscape is rendered mildly threatening in the hands of Levine and cinematographer Robert Leitzell, the colours muted and grim while the thick forest hints at something hiding amongst its shadows. Might be a black bear, but could be much worse. It seems pleasant enough when Allison (Plaza) arrives though, this struggling filmmaker visiting the area in the hope that she can get inspired and write her next script. With a warm and inviting lakeside cabin at her disposal, and Blair (Sarah Gadon) and Gabe (Christopher Abbott) as her two generous hosts, Allison feels right at home, the three of them chatting with genuine ease and compliments flying thick and fast between the two women. But when dinner time rolls around, those cheery façades begin to slip away, differing voices of opinion (views on feminism) and sly looks (Gabe’s disparaging shake of his head at seeing Blair down another glass of wine) building up a delicious yet horribly taut atmosphere. You could cut it with a knife, especially when tempers flare and words can’t be unsaid. And then, suddenly…everything changes.
What follows is a terrifically inventive drama about our relationships with others and how often we destroy them to get what we want, as well as how our perception of events can be altered depending on where we’re standing. While that might sound needlessly intricate and pretentious, Levine has actually managed to create a wonderfully engrossing narrative, his confident script gradually unravelling all of these ideas in a realistic and emotional way that grounds some of the weirder moments. And it certainly does get weird. Levine uses the very medium of film itself to turn this into something brilliantly meta that deconstructs his story as it carries on, essentially making this a tale of two halves that will have us second-guessing what’s really going on. Yet it’s to Levine’s credit that the devices he uses ensures both parts are equally fascinating, his sharp dialogue and ability to coax strong, versatile performances from his cast keeping us on board with the changes when they do happen. To talk about that in too much detail would spoil the experience of watching Black Bear for the first time though – something that makes this even more fun and impactful.
This breaking down of the narrative also gives his characters a complexity that wouldn’t have been there in a normal drama – a method that has us constantly reassessing our opinion of them. All three switch back and forth from victim to villain, their anxieties and selfish desires causing them to make increasingly bad decisions, especially when they’re stomping over each other without a second thought for the consequences. The cast’s layered performances certainly enhance this too, highlighting their character’s flaws in different ways throughout. Whether they’re arguing or scheming, Blair and Gabe are played with striking realism by Sarah Gadon and Christopher Abbott, the tension that builds up between them particularly riveting (even more so when this is suddenly turned on its head in the second half). Yet it is Aubrey Plaza who literally has us hanging on her every word, her astonishing portrayal adding both comedy and huge emotional heft to the story. A scene in which she breaks down is incredibly powerful, every tear and anguished yell something that we feel ourselves. Indeed, she might be throwing flippant remarks around (“Bitches be crazy”) or chugging from a bottle of whiskey, but it’s still hard not to side with her, Plaza’s raw and tender performance resonating with us, even when Allison is needlessly destroying herself and anyone else in her path.
Switching between moments of comedy, drama and horror (all tones that Levine absolutely nails), Black Bear is a refreshingly distinctive film that becomes even more fascinating when we realise where it’s heading. Surreal without ever being contrived or incomprehensible, Levine draws the two halves of his narrative together in a way that enhances them both, letting us make our own conclusions about what’s actually happening. But what’s most wonderful is how real this all feels, Levine’s inventive direction, pitch-perfect writing (those dinner scenes are amazing) and the strong performances from the cast grounding the weirder touches of the story. With ideas about identity, desire and jealousy explored in intriguingly different ways throughout, this is an engaging piece of cinema that plays out like an updated version of The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981). Watch this, and you’ll see what I mean.
(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: https://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/film_review/gff-2021-black-bear/)