‘Black Bear’ review: steer clear of this self-obsessed psycho-drama

Aubrey Plaza's mind-bending, meta cringe comedy is best left well alone

Immensely frustrating and dissatisfying as a result, indie drama Black Bear examines the dangers of investing too much in the pursuit of art. As star Aubrey Plaza explained to NME this week: “At what cost do we give ourselves for art? When does it become not art and when does it become abuse?”

Plaza plays Allison, an indie filmmaker at a creative crossroads who goes to stay with her musician friend Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his partner Blair (Sarah Gadon) at their cabin in the woods. Hoping to find inspiration, she instead grows increasingly irritated with the couple, and they her. Blair is pregnant with Gabe’s baby but the pair can’t agree on anything, and Allison’s arrival only adds further disruption. It is at this point when everything dissolves – and Black Bear transforms into something totally new. In the movie’s second half, Gabe is now the director and married to Allison. On top of that, Gabe and Blair are pretending to have an affair in an attempt to elicit superior acting from Allison. The result is essentially two completely different films, which required two completely different approaches from the cast.

Black Bear
Aubrey Plaza in new indie ‘Black Bear’. CREDIT: Vertigo Releasing

All three actors are on top form – Plaza showing her versatility by switching between wry comedy and serious drama with ease, and Abbott proving he’s one of film’s most reliable leading men. Gadon, too, has a nervous energy which fits her character perfectly. But if anything, such good acting makes the script’s flimsiness even more obvious. Points about traditional gender roles and possessive relationships lead nowhere, and many arguments are provocative for the sake of it.

Writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine is clearly playing mind games with us, ripping up the rulebook to emphasise how close healthy commitment is to dangerous obsession. But his disjointed narrative doesn’t do Black Bear any favours. Rather than digging deeper into the themes tackled in the first scenario, the second one dilutes the story by introducing irrelevant satellite characters (stoned crew members, frustrated supporting actors) and eases the tension between the central trio.

Eventually, the titular bear makes himself known in an obvious way which adds basically nothing to the rest of the film. Complex movies often thrive on their reticence to give viewers answers, but the two-part structure of Black Bear does a disservice to both not-quite-good-enough halves. Compelling actors and the odd biting one-liner keep the film sporadically entertaining, but it feels like there’s a more rewarding experience somewhere beneath the surface, itching to get out.

Details

  • Director: Lawrence Michael Levine
  • Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon
  • Release date: April 23 (video on demand)
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