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Black Bear Pulls the Rug on Looks and Gazes of the Imagination

Image courtesy of Momentum Pictures

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Much to her flexible power for sardonic comedy or reckless abandon, actress Aubrey Plaza has a look. It’s not entirely a scowl. It’s not entirely a cynical grin. Deeming it a case of “resting bitch face” would be a dismissal to grander notions going on behind those eyes and curved lips. No, it’s more than that. It feels like all of the possible come-hither coyness mixed with all of the possible perilous threat her presence can express. She’s a puzzle, and it’s quite alright to love that about her.

Plaza can set a movie and a role off with that look of hers. As an emerging champion on the indie scene after years in primetime television, she’s reached that level. In the case of Black Bear, a 2020 Sundance Film Festival premiere now arriving on streaming platforms December 4th, she’s setting off more than one persona and storytelling angle for eclectic writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine (Wild Canaries).

Allison sits on a dock looking off in the distance
Image courtesy of Momentum Pictures

That look of hers, seen above in the featured still, starts the film right off. Plaza stares into the camera with mists of humidity surrounding her while sitting on a centered towel on a lakeside dock while wearing a stark red bathing suit. Is she relaxed and content or is she withholding some unseen stress? With Plaza, you wouldn’t know right away. Her character leaves this serene perch to go back inside by a window to sit down and start penning in a journal. Hints of ideas, jumping from the mind to the page and back out to our viewing, begin.

Disembarking a car at the entrance to an expansive cabin getaway on Long Lake, in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, Allison (Plaza) is a former popular actress who has transitioned to become her own film director of self-starring independent films. She has sought a curious place to work out her next film idea and found this future B&B project owned and run by Gabe (Christoper Abbott of Possessor and It Comes at Night) and his second-trimester pregnant partner Blair (Sarah Gadon of Enemy).

Be careful to those who fish around for compliments. Allison welcomes herself with attempts at giving Blair niceties about her glowing condition and other little superficial features she has noticed. Folks love to add those to introductions and handshakes, they count them as part of common courtesy. Blair hears them and figures she has to make a similar effort in return, only for Allison to retort that she doesn’t like the notion of compliments at all. That a rug pull of swerved courtesy, and the first of many in Black Bear, with an Allison that is labeled as being as “hard to read” as Plaza playing her. Welcoming Allison into their humble abode, the trio share dinner and drinks to learn about each other more.

Gabe and Blair come off as the kind of couple that finish and correct each other’s non-matching thoughts and statements in borderline catty ways. The attractive and contrarian presence of Allison bends Gabe’s attention a little more than Blair is comfortable with. The conversation topics start light and then turn more specific with feminism becoming the top provocation. The jokes end when reality shows up. All of a sudden, it’s no longer cool to be sarcastic and divisive. Who calls who out and on what gets heated. Exposed values, harsh tones, and hurt feelings splinter the three abruptly, but leaves an opening for Gabe to pursue Allison.

Gabe lays behind Allison in bed.
Image courtesy of Momentum Pictures and the Sundance Institute

When a shocking accident occurs ending the night in turbulence and an appearance from the titular omnivorous mammal, the swerve sets in with Black Bear. The film re-racks its colliding billiard balls of characters and performers. Levine sends them right back to that red swimsuit and dock, with new takes and dynamics coming out of that journal in the same rustic setting.

This time Abbott’s Gabe is a pretentious film director with a full crew populated the lodge. He is filming a dramatic movie of clashing infidelity. Plaza’s Allison plays his lead actress wife driven increasingly angry by her husband’s constant critical feedback. Gabe’s executing a hidden ploy of needling her frustrations in an effort to get a more tangible reaction in the scenes by pitting Allison against Gadon’s younger co-star Blair, pretending to have a fake crush on the director. Jealousy is not something to toy people with. That simmering doom of a ruse comes to head on the final night of shooting.

The challenge with Black Bear isn’t watching the performances. Plaza had us at the dock and never lost us. We always want to know what Aubrey is up to and she gives everything she has as the fickle Allison. Abbott and Gadon precariously exchange places from the manipulated to the manipulator, in these two very different tangents with ballsy shifts. The dark atmospheric music from composer Gulio Carmassi and rock musician Bryan Scary lingers on the three mixing toxic desires in two storylines.

In the same way Allison’s actress persona asks how many takes are enough on a critical emotional scene, we may be asking how much is enough of Black Bear or, worse, what’s the bigger point? The movie-within-a-movie of the second half is, granted, an interesting examination of the creative process and presenting damaged egos. The intentional crossover connections of the two threads, between the pier, the bear, the love triangle, repeated lines of dialogue and more, certainly catch our attention.

Still, Levine’s film feels like two unfinished concepts squished together for the sake of dropping a twist in the middle. Imagined intrigue feels spliced and not stoked. Are these two imagined scenarios keeper ideas from Allison’s journal for her next movie? Or are they two balled-up rejected story-starters heading to the cabin trash can before another cold swim in the lake brings forth another? That’s where an audience will feel either engaged or strung along with Black Bear.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website "Every Movie Has a Lesson," our offshoot of Horror Obsessive, and also on Medium.com publications. As a school educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Assocation and the Online Film Critics Society.

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