Film Review: Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott in ‘Black Bear’

After its world premiere at Sundance 2020, filmmaker Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear emerges for general release in the UK. This Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon lead feature is a well-pitched darkly comic affair that deploys numerous inventive narrative shifts whilst travelling through raw emotional territory.

Allison (Plaza) is a filmmaker seeking inspiration at a rural retreat run by musician Gabe (Abbott) and his pregnant wife Blair (Gadon). Allison becomes thrust in the middle of their marital disputes, leading to an emotional alcohol-fuelled evening of unrest. A meta twist in the film’s latter half forces us to question the film’s prior events as Black Bear pushes on in challenging new directions.

Robert Leitzell’s cinematography explores the stunning rural US settings with a picturesque calm. Tranquil long shots of the great lake, rustling forestry, and the grandiose lodge home to Gabe and Blair all help craft an impressive sense of setting, whilst the film’s sound design furthers the rural charm. This location, initially the perfect retreat for escape and inspiration, becomes a tense battleground for Black Bear’s central characters with the blissful lakeside home descending into a location for debate, spousal sparring, and voyeuristic tension.

Black Bear is a film of two distinct parts – Part One: The Bear in the Road and Part Two: The Bear by the Boat House. The first runs as a straightforward glimpse into the very public destruction of a couple’s marriage. Blair is pregnant, drinks regularly and clashes with her husband on issues including feminism, art, gender roles and family dynamics. Similarly Gabe shoots down Blair continuously and seems like a passive bystander in the relationship. The arrival of young filmmaker Allison into this dynamic heightens this dramatically – Levine captures Gabe’s voyeuristic gaze over Allison and gently builds up the romantic lingering between the visitor and husband amidst the brewing marital tension. Here Abbott, Gadon and Plaza fall into the roles with an impressive intensity, engaging and enthralling as they capture these rocky dynamics with a ferocious aplomb.

Whilst this first half is an impressive slice of drama, Black Bear’s latter half adds a further depth and sense of intrigue to the proceedings in its skilfully-plotted meta twist. Those keen to avoid spoilers should look away now. The situation has now changed, revealing Allison as an actress, starring in a film directed by Gabe and co-starring Blair. Blair and Gabe aim to flirt and intentionally dismiss and provoke Allison with the goal of pushing an intense performance from her. Levine cleverly switches Allison and Plaza’s roles, Plaza is now the scorned wife whilst Gadon is the alluring other woman tempting Abbott’s Gabe. Throughout this latter half, the characters re-enact moments of drama that we have witnessed in the first act of the film serving as a distorted mirror image repeating events from earlier in twisted new ways.

Black Bear delves into plenty of rich thematic ground ensuring that it challenges as well as engages. Repeating much of the imagery throughout the film and blending and distorting the two narratives, allows viewers to take their own approach to the meanings and conclusions of Black Bear. The feature also allows for each actress and Abbott to sink their teeth into complex and well-constructed roles, ensuring that although the narrative may feel trippy and meta their performances are invested with a sense of realism and authenticity.

Black Bear is available on demand from April 23rd.