A puzzle-box of a movie, Black Bear is a literal film of two halves. It begins as Allison (Aubrey Plaza) arrives in a remote location in the Adirondack Mountains, where she’s planning to rent a room in a countryside lodge, newly inherited by Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant wife Blair (Sarah Gadon). Allison is a former actor turned writer-director, who is looking to find the right headspace to write another project. Gabe and Blair are formerly from Brooklyn, who have escaped the city after failing in their ambitions as a musician and a dancer.
Allison’s stay is anything but relaxing, however, as alcohol mixed with high-wire emotions soon leads to some serious disquiet. Just as things start to implode, writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine cuts to ‘Part II’. Allison is now an actress filming an indie project. Gabe is her husband/director and Blair is her co-star, who is clearly enjoying her own flirtation with the filmmaker. As the shoot enters its final day, the drunken and out-of-control Allison hits near hysteria.
Quite how the film’s two segments are meant to be connected is really left widely open to interpretation, with Levine clearly intending a film about the creative process and artistic inspiration. Certainly, the second half captures the chaotic spirit of an independent movie shoot with real aplomb, the best ‘film within a film’ since Tom DeCillo’s Living In Oblivion brought us dreams and disaster in the mid-nineties.
Plaza has enjoyed plenty of indie experiences in her career, from Safety Not Guaranteed to Ned Rifle, which makes her an ideal candidate to play Allison. Yet she has never quite had a role like this before, one that requires her to veer emotionally from one extreme to the other. It’s an impressive performance, one that deserves to help her break from the comedy shackles that sitcom Parks and Recreation left her in.
Abbott is becoming increasingly present on the indie scene himself, in provocative pieces like Piercing and Possessor, which makes him hugely suitable as the artist-antagonist here. Undeniably, Black Bear is not a film for all; it’s mix of brain-teasing, black humour and violent outbursts may be off-putting to some. But as a film designed to cause multiple interpretations, it’s a perfect piece for those looking for something adventurous to ponder over.
Black Bear is available on demand from 23 April. For more details, click here.