The alien, disaffected screen persona of Aubrey Plaza is a particularly modern kind of movie star. Since breaking out of the Obama-core sitcom Parks And Recreation, she has boldly used the high-profile of supporting roles in crass comedies to lead indie films that strike a tone somewhere between the movement once called Mumblecore and the comedy school UCB. In Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear, Plaza has perfected a persona that seems almost out of time, a modern Kay Francis, the Ghost World generation stuck in TikTok land. Ingrid Goes West used this to a literal extreme, by casting her as a social media-addicted stalker. Black Bear looks at Plaza and says “yes, but she could be a thespian too.”
Levine’s odd, never entirely cogent film opens with a striking image. On a pier before a plain James Turrell-like vista, Allison (Plaza) sits in a red swimsuit looking out at the pale grey skyline. Snapping out of a trance, she walks through a woodland path into an inviting cabin, where she sits with a pen and paper. The bulk of Black Bear may be what she creates, or remembers, or dreams. It could be something else entirely.
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Allison then arrives at the cabin, owned — as it turns out — by Gabe (the ever intense Christopher Abbott) and his partner Blair (Sarah Gadon, sometimes otherworldly, sometimes piercing). Allison is visiting in order to find a location and inspiration for a new filmmaking project. The trio spend a lot of time early on mentioning how good looking they all are, as a shrug of acknowledgement to the audience. Charlie lives off paltry royalties from his musical career. Blair is a dancer, half regretting giving it up to move to the woods. Allison is holding something back. She is the archetype of what they describe as “a hot mess,” smoking weed, flirting and lying through her teeth.
The actors throw gentle barbs while birds merrily chirp in the distance. Levine toys with the audience, as distant shots imply the watchful eye of a voyeur: do the woods have creatures lurking within, waiting for the narratively-appropriate time to dispatch this trio? The dangers, it turns out, are closer to home, and across an extended dinner sequence, the tension between the trio becomes more vivid and jazz soaked, their regrets and lusts and libidinous urges pushing to the fore. Cinematographer Robert Leitzell captures oaky hues of the cabin and candlelight-bending shadows around corners through which the three performers gamely leap. Even if this material is overly familiar to viewers, the delivery is lush and compelling.
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Then, a little under halfway through, Black Bear resets. Now, Allison and Gabe are a married filmmaking couple with noisy overtones of Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes. They are using the cabin to shoot a low-budget feature. It’s the final night of the shoot, and emotions are high as Allison suspects that beanie-hat wearing hipster genius Gabe is sleeping with her co-star, Blair. This new narrative reveals layers of reality, pretense and persona that the simple setup of the film’s first part seemed uninterested in, even developing a swapped version of the first half’s dynamic. But this is no Celine and Julie Go Boating situation. It is at this point that Black Bear descends into an unfortunate retelling of the same hysterical woman trope that appears in films about performers from All About Eve and Opening Night through recent films like Her Smell. Plaza’s Allison is given little to do but drunkenly flail about, messing up the shoot in a number of cringe-comedy sequences. Levine introduces a broader set of characters as the crew members, including Paola Lázaro as the explosive diahrrea-stricken AD Cahya. They spill coffee on fresh costumes, sneak tokes of a vape and bitch about each other. It is never anything but entertaining, but Levine can’t quite wrap a bow on any of his ideas. The stories visually rhyme, but for no real purpose beyond the satisfaction of it. The bear of the title appears as an abruption, a punctuation mark, an end of things. Nature calls for these stories to be told, Levine says.
Levine’s wife Sophia Takal directed Always Shine, another film about persona-swapping women in the woods that is, to my mind, one of the finest American independent films of the last decade or so. It would not do to compare Black Bear with Takal’s film simply on the merit of spousal relation, but given that the dedication “For Sophia” appears at the film’s close, Levine seems to be riffing on his wife’s creativity, attempting to uncover her creative subconscious through his own multi-tonal filmmaking style. His embrace of “wife guy” filmmaking might explain the Cassavetes rip. It also might be offputting to those without any prior investment in the couple’s work. Black Bear does, after all, stink of men writing women as cute dolls to be played with. It’s the sardonic, versatile Plaza performance that saves Levine’s Black Bear.
Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.