Black Bear — which premiered in January this year at the Sundance Film Festival and also screened on Sunday’s closing night of the Nightstream Film Festival — at first seems like your prototypical festival entry and not necessarily in a good way either: a dialogue-driven drama shot on handheld cameras, with overt horror overtones and a scathing portrayal of indulgent characters in the world of indie filmmaking. And it’s also starring two, hipper-than-hip thirtysomethings: Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott.
On paper, writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine’s second film looks like a parody of an A24 flick. In actuality, Black Bear reveals itself to be something far stranger and nearly impossible to classify. The story’s setup is simple: Allison (Plaza) is an independent filmmaker looking to solve a creative block by staying at a deep-woods artist’s retreat run by Gabe (Abbott) and his girlfriend, Blair (Sarah Gadon), who are expecting their first child together. During an increasingly drunken evening (with Blair downing red wine despite her pregnancy), things get tense between the three as relationship insecurities are brought into stark view, and Blair senses an inappropriate connection growing between Gabe and Allison.
That first 30 to 40 minutes is fairly straightforward but also darkly comic and constantly threatening to head somewhere more disturbing. However, an abrupt title card introduces a second act that completely upends everything you’ve seen before it. Character dynamics are shifted and the plot overhauled in a way that calls into question the reality of the movie’s entire first third. It is a bold move on director Levine’s part, refusing to offer any clear answers yet still not sacrificing any of his film’s entertainment value.
Think of it like Mulholland Dr. as filmed by John Cassavettes — a movie built on dream logic and emotional truth instead of narrative clarity but filmed with that director’s handheld close-up style. The similarity to the late director can’t be any accident, as Plaza gives a center-stage, all-out manic performance that recalls the unvarnished roles he gave to Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night. Plaza is quite frankly astonishing here, required to take herself to places too ugly, raw and uncomfortable for most actors.
As for what it all means? I’m not sure if I could get a handle on one clear, driving theme. There are a lot of separate threads here at which you can grasp. The first third seems to be an indictment of masculinity, as Gabe tries to play the good boyfriend while simultaneously flirting with Allison behind Blair’s back. Without revealing where Levine’s film goes, Black Bear becomes a criticism of indie filmmakers, their self-seriousness and how an artist’s ego can take precedence over the emotional well-being of others.
In the end, the lack of thematic coherence is a slight ding against it, but it at least throws all those ideas against the wall with true gusto. If this is what Levine looks like when he’s perhaps a tad too self-indulgent, then it will truly be something to behold when he reins himself in.