By: Jessica Goddard
Our own Addison Wylie mentioned I probably shouldn’t watch the trailer for Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear, since it would be better to go in cold.…and boy was he right. When I tracked down the trailer after seeing the film, I was shocked by how much it gives away. So in that spirit, I’ll warn that this review contains what are, effectively, spoilers (though that’s not the perfect word).
Black Bear is basically a two-for-the-price-of-one film; with each half offering something independently worthwhile. When both come together by the end, they make for a thought-provoking exploration of the destructive side of the artist’s impulse to draw on life.
In Part One, Allison (Aubrey Plaza), is introduced as a small-time actress-turned-filmmaker who’s come to stay with Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his visibly pregnant girlfriend Blair (Sarah Gadon) in their (rather massive) lake house in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. The couple, transplants from Brooklyn with artistic backgrounds of their own, have recently moved into the inherited family cottage and are trying out a thing where they make money renting out rooms to fellow creatives as some kind of unstructured artistic retreat. Problem is Allison is fun and easy-going and unserious, while Blair is uptight and “square” by comparison. Naturally, Allison and Gabe develop an obvious chemistry that Gabe unconvincingly denies.
The tense dynamic between the three of them, secluded in this big, quiet house in the woods, reaches a boiling point and the narrative abruptly concludes close to midway through the film’s runtime. Sort of.
In Part Two, suddenly we’re more or less back at the beginning, watching the same movie we just saw, this time being filmed on location with nearly the same cast in different starring roles. The story seems the same, but the lines are not. The small cast of three has expanded to include the quirky but lovable film crew.
And this set up, brilliantly, invites all kinds of questions. What were we watching in Part One? Was it a true memory that inspired Part Two’s script? Was it a differently-cast version of the movie being filmed in Part Two? Or was Part One a story imagined from scratch that’s not translating well in Part Two?
The whole cast gives terrific performances, with Plaza demonstrating unexpected range. Even the side characters that recur as members of the film crew in Part Two are charming and memorable in their own ways.
All in all, Black Bear has everything: style, substance, good pacing, energetic dialogue. It’s less of a hard-hitting thriller than its trailer suggests but, whatever it is, it’s fresh, imaginative, thankfully uninhibited, and one of the best movies of the year.
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Jessica Goddard: @TheJGod