The Movie Waffler New to MUBI - BLACK BEAR | The Movie Waffler


black bear review
Tensions rise between a young couple when they invite an attractive filmmaker to stay at their lakeside cabin.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Lawrence Michael Levine

Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon, Paola Lázaro, Grantham Coleman

black bear poster

Writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine's Black Bear is three movies rolled into one. It's a "people go crazy in a cabin" movie. It's a "shifting persona" movie. It's a backstage farce. As a "people go crazy in a cabin" movie it's thoroughly engaging, thanks to the performances of its three leads. As a backstage farce it's amusing while adding little to that particular canon. It's as a "shifting persona" movie that Black Bear feels most redundant, chiefly because in treading this territory Levine finds himself competing with some of cinema's most iconic filmmakers, and predictably comes up short.

The setting is one of those fabulous lake houses where characters are always getting into trouble in American psychological thrillers. Struggling musician Gabe (Christopher Abbott) inherited the house from his mother, and has made it his home with his pregnant partner Blair (Sarah Gadon). To bring in some money they've decided to rent out a spare room for any artists who might like to take a retreat in a scenic location.

black bear review

Taking them up on such an offer is Allison (Aubrey Plaza), a filmmaker/actress contending with a case of writer's block. She's instantly flirtatious with Gabe, who is awkward in her presence. When Allison and Blair meet, you can peel the passive aggression with a pocket knife. That night, the wine flows and joints are rolled, and with our three protagonists' guards down, things are said which cause upset and tension. Blair's paranoia about the pretty young woman she's let into her home comes bubbling to the surface in hysterical fashion, only serving to push Gabe into Allison's arms.

As a one-act play about three attractive young people thrown together in a cabin and lubricated with alcohol, Black Bear's opening act makes for a thrilling watch. All three actors are at the peak of their powers, and the movie gives them room to express themselves without coming off as self-indulgent.

black bear review

The same can't be said for the remainder of the film. Following an incident that closes out the opening act, we return to the shot that opened the movie, that of Allison sitting at the end of the lake's pier in a red swimsuit. The difference this time is that the shot is handheld, rather than the locked down composition we were previously offered. As the camera follows Allison we discover that she's on a film set. It's not however one of her own movies, but rather it's directed by Gabe, who is also now her lover. In this scenario Blair is another actress who has conspired with Gabe to gaslight Allison into believing she's having an affair with the director in order to mine a more realistic performance from Allison. Needless to say, this leads to much chaos on set when a paranoid Allison turns to the bottle.

After settling into an intensely gripping character drama, we're left to watch a rather run of the mill behind the scenes farce. While anyone who has ever worked on a film set in any capacity will chortle at some of the in-jokes, there's nothing here we haven't seen in the multitude of movies that have covered this topic, from The Bad and the Beautiful to Day for Night. Most of all it feels like a millennial take on Tom de Cillo's satire of '90s indie filmmaking, Living in Oblivion. It's very well performed, with a standout turn from Paola Lázaro as an assistant director contending with the stress of the situation while nursing an upset stomach, but also very run of the mill.

black bear review

What are we to make of the switching roles between our three leads? Is this second portion meant to represent reality, or a fiction of Allison's making? Or perhaps it's the other way around and the opening act was the reality which has inspired this fiction? It's difficult to care, as Levine doesn't offer us so much as a crumb of information to draw a connection between the two. If you bring shifting personas into your drama, you better have something interesting to say, as you're now in cinematic territory that has been mined by such greats as Hitchcock, Bergman, Altman and Lynch. Levine does nothing of note with this concept, and while it grabs our attention with its initial bait and switch, we soon lose interest in the psychology of this tactic, as there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of thought behind it. Even the notion of integrating this template into a backstage drama isn't particularly revolutionary, as Monte Hellman did the exact same thing with his under-seen 2010 oddity Road to Nowhere.

If Black Bear is worthy of a watch it's solely for that great opening act, and particularly for the performance of Plaza, cast against type as a very millennial hipster breed of femme fatale. It was shot long before COVID interrupted filmmaking practises, but with its confined setting and improv vibe, it resembles the new breed of lockdown shot dramas that have emerged over the past year.

Black Bear
 is on MUBI UK now.

2021 movie reviews