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Five Cent Cine: Black Bear

3 characters in search of a plot.

Allison is an actress who gave up her craft to become a filmmaker. With her mother dead and no husband, she goes alone to a house in the woods owned by the young couple Gabe (who questions feminism) and pregnant Blair, hoping something will happen that will spark her muse and produce a watchable movie. Or does she? Is she a filmmaker or an actress or both or neither? Did her mother die? Does she have a husband? The consummate untrustworthy narrator, Allison tells Gabe the first evening of her arrival, “I’ve been lying since the second I got here.”

​The consummate untrustworthy narrator, Allison (Aubrey Plaza, right) tells Gabe (Christopher Abbott) the first evening of her arrival, “I’ve been lying since the second I got here.”

That line, along with the puzzling incompatibility of Gabe and Blair and several distortions of time sequence early on, is a clue that “Black Bear” is the latest in an intriguing body of work that includes Christopher Nolan’s 2000 “Memento,” where one story line moves backwards in time, and Charlie Kaufman’s 2020 “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” whose narrative chronology is close to impenetrable, and whose characters resist clarity and definition. 

Writer and director Lawrence Michael Levine uses filmmaking as the place to explore authenticity; Gabe directs, and Blair and Allison act in, the film that is made in the 2nd of two episodes/stories that constitute “The Bear.” Is Allison more authentic when acting within the “straightforward” narrative (episode 1), or more authentic when manipulated to express powerful, and deeply felt, emotions for the camera? When Blair describes Allison’s statements as “solipsism,” Allison responds that she doesn’t know the word, only later to acknowledge she is familiar with the concept. That interchange could describe Levine’s film. Is what we are viewing just in the mind of one person—most likely Allison, who is writing chapter titles?

Aubrey Plaza, best known as a deadpan TV comedian, shows emotional depth and a wide range of feelings.

The strength of “Black Bear” lies in part in the credible acting of the three principals (the others count for little): Christopher Abbott as Gabe, Sarah Gadon as Blair, and above all Aubrey Plaza, best known as a deadpan TV comedian, who here shows emotional depth and a wide range of feelings. From the ironic, cool, untrustworthy persona who opens the film, she emerges as someone who experiences great pain, pain that comes across as real even as she plays a manipulated actress rather than the writer behind the scenes. In a story that interrogates the idea of reality, the character arc that Plaza creates is a substantial achievement.

At the very least, ‘Black Bear’ is an exceedingly clever film with a compelling conceit and emotive punch; ‘life imitates art’ is performed before our eyes.

The comedic aspects of the movie rely on the making of an independent film on a shoestring in one location (the house and its boathouse on Long Lake in the Adirondacks), with time constraints. The stoned and drunk crew members spill coffee, lose track of the cue lines, have diarrhea (a tilapia joke, told too often), and race to the bathroom. Some will find this softening of an intense and moving drama to be silly and, worse, distracting.

Whether it’s too clever, overly contrived—a failed post-modern experiment—may be in the eye of the beholder.

Levine’s disruptions of the traditional narrative and the posing of existential issues involving solipsism and authenticity are worthy of attention. At the very least, “Black Bear” is an exceedingly clever film with a compelling conceit and emotive punch; “life imitates art” is performed before our eyes. Whether it’s too clever, overly contrived—a failed post-modern experiment—may be in the eye of the beholder.


Date: 2020

Stars: 3 (out of 4)

Director: Lawrence Michael Levine

Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon

Runtime: 104 minutes

Other Awards: 2 wins (for Plaza) and 14 nominations to date

Availability: for rent or purchase on multiple sites, including Google Play, Redbox and Apple TV; see JustWatch here.


Lead image: Allison (Aubrey Plaza) is isolated on the dock, or is she?


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Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

https://www.2filmcritics.com

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