Note: Light spoilers ahead.
The first half of Black Bear is a horror premise waiting to happen. Allison (Aubrey Plaza), a filmmaker stuck in a creative rut, heads to a remote cabin to shake her writer’s block. It’s owned by expecting parents Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon), whose relationship drama Allison finds herself in the middle of right from the start. A tension ridden score along with the ominous rumblings in the woods immediately set up a story ripe for tragedy. When the film seemingly heads in that very direction, it takes on an unexpected yet captivating look at the process and very personal undertakings of creativity.
The film is written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine, who personally asked Plaza to star in the lead role. Skirting the edge between comedy and thriller, Black Bear is Plaza’s most serious role to date and is a marvel. At first, she’s channeling the familiar snarky and sarcastic wit of April Ludgate. Once the second act hits, it turns into a captivating performance of a creative stuck between reality and fiction. In the film’s most compelling scene, Plaza delivers an increasingly devastating breakdown that is easy to emphasize with, even as we want to look away from the carnage.
Abbott and Gadon as the other two central figures in this story bring a humorous tension to their performances. Their passive aggressiveness towards each other leads to one of the most awkward dinner scenes from this year. Through them, Black Bear takes on a philosophical air as post-dinner conversations turn toward modern feminism, the filmmaking process, and how we present ourselves to each other. Stuck in the middle of this is Allison, whose unwavering commitment to sarcasm never lets us see who she really is, until the bear appears and turns everything upside down.
Black Bear is a surreal look at the creative process, taking us into the cyclical structure of stories by framing itself as a story-within-a-story, playing on our assumptions about who these characters are and what they’re capable of.
The black bear metaphor shows up throughout the film, physically or through dialogue, clever play on words you have to keep your ears open for. The bear, while feeling random, often means doom on the horizon, whether for Allison herself or a signal to the audience things aren’t quite what they seem. It mostly works strictly in the storytelling sense, as Black Bear is a film about storytelling itself; the bear becomes just a motif meant to make us notice the frame of the story.
As the film moves beyond its initial premise, the stakes become higher, the jokes funnier, the tragedy more realized, and Allsion’s self-actualization, whether writing for catharsis or simply making it up as she goes along, all the more rewarding. It’s full of life, existentialism, and dives deep into the creative mind to discover the rewarding toll it takes to tell a good story.