sat 15/06/2024

Black Bear review - unexpected knotty treat | reviews, news & interviews

Black Bear review - unexpected knotty treat

Black Bear review - unexpected knotty treat

Plaza delivers a career-best performance in rug-pulling drama

Circular logic: Aubrey Plaza in 'Black Bear'

We’ve all experienced the “fast food film” – enjoyable while we watch it, but realise afterwards it was an empty thrill with little nutritional value. Much rarer is the film that can only be truly appreciated once the credits roll. Black Bear, with its segmented presentation and recurring themes, is one such film. Risky, baffling, and more than the sum of its parts.

Aubrey Plaza stars as Alison, a director staying at the rural house of artsy couple Blair and Gabe (Sarah Gadon and Christopher Abbott). She’s acerbic, ironic, and an agitator in this combustible household. Or is Plaza in fact Alison, a paranoid and insecure actor caught in a dangerous game with her co-star Blair and husband/director Gabe (Sarah Gadon and Christopher Abbott)?

If you think that all sounds a bit Lynchian then you’re probably right. But instead of surreal disjointed sequences, writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine opts for two contained realist stories that share the same performers and location. The characters may have identical names, but their personalities and situations are drastically different.Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott in Black BearThis gives the actors one hell of a chance to push their limits. Parks and Rec fans might recognise Plaza’s deadpan asides in one role, but will be amazed by her slowly unravelling breakdown in the other. Similarly, it’s a joy to watch Abbott switch from broody musician to neurotic filmmaker. Only by seeing them play to type do we appreciate how against type the second half is.

Perhaps the film’s biggest risk is how delayed this format reveal is. The first half hour is presented as a straight indie love-triangle drama. The characters are self-involved and the dialogue is at best stilted, if not downright cringeworthy. Blair accuses Gabe of being chauvinistic, but everyone is fed lines that would seem dated 20 years ago. But then, maybe that’s the point? Maybe this first half is merely the bad script of the second half’s production. But then why does the cast not line up? And why does the second half mirror the back story of Alison in part one?

Black Bear’s logic is circular. Each half could possibly exist in the other’s universe. But never perfectly. And that’s what makes it such an interesting whole. There’s no definitive answers. Different people in different situations can still play the same archetypes and enact the same stories. The film simply presents itself and allows you the viewer to interpret as you please.

This may sound a bit exhausting, a lot of homework after class. But there’s plenty of red meat to get stuck in to, with two sequences in particular standing out: the first, an impossibly tense dinner between the three leads; the second, a catastrophic filming set where an entire crew are awkward bystanders. In both scenes, the characters wrestle for power, sabotaging their personal relationships and professional careers in the process. The execution of escalation is masterful.

With Black Bear available now on demand, its biggest challenge will be ensuring people watch it through. It’s a lot easier to switch channels than walk out of a screening. Viewers looking for an easy watch with the guy from Girls and the girl from Parks and Rec are in for a rude awakening. But it’s worth it.



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