Is there ever a right way to mine one’s past experiences for artistic purposes? Morally right, that is. Ethically right. Some say no, and they say it emphatically: You cannot justifiably broadcast real-life occurrences out for the world to see. It’s like airing other people’s dirty laundry. You just can’t do it. Others say yes. After all, by definition, relationships — whether platonic, familial, professional, romantic, or something less easily labeled — require two or more people. The events that transpire between those people don’t belong to any individual. Countless creatives have tried and failed to come to a conclusion, and playwright-turned-filmmaker Lawrence Michael Levine is next in a long line of people anxious to give it a go. His fourth feature, Black Bear, wrestles with this conundrum for 105 minutes in an effort to put this longstanding problem to bed.
Allison (Aubrey Plaza) sits alone on a dock overlooking a foggy lake. It looks much too cold to dive in, but fortunately she’s not swimming — she’s thinking. Brainstorming, more than likely. She’s an actress-turned-screenwriter (similar to Levine, who acts as well as writes and directs), and she’s sought out this wooded lakeside lodge so she can have a solo writer’s retreat. After a beat or two, she gets up, grabs her towel, and heads inside. She takes a seat, pauses, and puts pen to paper: Black Bear. From there, the audience is taken to a different point in time. Allison arrives at the cabin and is greeted by a musician named Gabe (Christopher Abbott). He and his pregnant wife, Blair (Sarah Gadon), a former dancer, are the owners of the property. After several dead ends in their professional lives, they reimagined their hideaway as a safe haven for artists to book for their own purposes. Allison is the first renter to take them up on it.
As the night progresses, the initial awkwardness that comes when meeting strangers transitions from slightly uncomfortable to flat-out unbearable. Gabe and Blair’s relationship has plenty of problems, and they have no problem hashing things out in front of Allison. It doesn’t help that their guest is more or less a nihilist, giddily throwing kindling on their fiery and contemptuous marriage in hopes of pushing the two to their breaking point. Gabe jabs at Blair, Blair shoots at Allison, Allison stabs back, each blow a little heavier than the one before. However, as dusk turns to night, Allison’s stone-faced façade begins to crumble and her true intentions — both for sabotaging this dysfunctional couple’s marriage and for taking a writing retreat — begin to reveal themselves.
Writer-director Levine knew exactly what he was doing when he cast Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, and Sarah Gadon as the leads in his latest project: Not only are they faces that any independent-film fan will surely recognize, but these three are also best known for being notable scene-stealers in a whole slew of titles from throughout the 2010s. The three performers are some of the unsung heroes of the modern indie, and Levine’s screenplay — chock-full of sharp, acidic dialogue, pitch-black humor, and, of course, plenty of yelling — feels like it was written just for them. Plaza is undoubtedly the biggest name of the trio, given her tenure on primetime television and her permanent typecasting as a strange supporting character at the studio level. However, Black Bear benefits from treating Abbott and Gadon as if they were her equals. They all have the time, space, and tools to shine, and shine brightly they do.
Alas, if only the structure of Black Bear were as strong as its leads. Title cards written on loose-leaf divide Levine’s film into two parts, and these bring to mind an image of him ripping out the sheet, crumpling it up in frustration, and chucking it into the trash can across the room from his desk. The inner conflict and structural division on the page is palpable on the screen, but it’s not as ingenious as the film seems to think it is. Although it starts promisingly, the final product is an inanely philosophical, needlessly complex, occasionally eye-rolling attempt at profound metatextuality. Levine has much more interesting things to say about gender performance, the social roles people assume for one another, and the ethics of commandeering private, interpersonal details for public works of art. In light of these, it’s disappointing to see so much time spent on trite solipsism (as Blair would put it).
That’s the problem with allowing the narrative to take a turn for the meta, at least lately: Too many screenwriters resort to meta self-reference in the pursuit of trenchant commentary. Levine’s script is no different. The work calling itself egocentric doesn’t make it any less so, nor does it give the viewer anything substantial to contemplate in the days and weeks that follow the film. What’s the argument or commentary being made? What is the takeaway? Is there one, beyond striving for the stupefaction of the audience? Cutting through the thicket of sturdy talents, ensnaring eccentricity, and tenebrous visuals, all that’s found at the center of this forest of a film is an empty clearing. Black Bear will unquestionably be praised for its puzzling configuration, its robust performances, its tense plotting, and its heady pseudo-philosophy, but is it unreasonable to want a psychological indie drama that seeks to do more than just perplex?
Black Bear is now available to rent from major online platforms.