Black Bear (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A sharp and vicious comedy of two interconnected tales

“Black Bear” is a sharp and vicious comedy film which actively confronts you with a matter of fiction and reality. While the first half is an increasingly tense chamber drama of desire, jealousy, and manipulation amidst three believable characters, the second half cheerfully reconstructs the elements of the first half via one bumpy filmmaking process, and it is alternatively amusing and disturbing to watch how these two parts resonate with each other somewhere between fiction and reality.

The first part begins with the arrival of one young woman in a lake house located somewhere in some remote forest area. Her name is Allison (Aubrey Plaza), we come to gather that she has been pursuing a filmmaking career since she gave up her acting career some time ago. She comes to the lake house because she needs a quiet place where she can concentrate on writing the screenplay for her movie, and it looks like she finds a right place when she is casually greeted by Gabe (Christopher Abbott), who is the owner of the lake house.

Right after Gabe takes her to his lake house, he introduces Allison to his pregnant wife Blair (Sarah Gadon), and Allison slowly gets accustomed to the quiet and isolated environment surrounding the lake house. She can always rest at the lakeside whenever she is not focusing on writing her screenplay, and Gabe and Blair seem to be ideal hosts for her besides being a good couple.

However, the mood gradually becomes unnerving and uncomfortable as these three characters have a dinner and then a drinking time in the following evening. While everyone enjoys their dinner cooked and prepared by Gabe, we sense a growing tension among them as they subsequently talk and drink in the living room. It slowly turns out that Gabe was not totally honest with Allison at the beginning, and Blair becomes quite suspicious of what is being exchanged between her husband and Allison, who usually agrees to whatever Gabe says.

Allison emphasizes that she is not actually serious in her responses to Gabe, but we cannot help but wonder whether she is really honest about that, and Aubrey Plaza, who has been mainly known for her sardonic supporting turn in TV sitcom series “Parks and Recreation”, is effective in dangling her performance between several different possibilities. Is Allison actually aware of her emotional effects on Gabe and Blair? If so, is she simply toying with them or is she definitely interested in getting closer to Gabe?

After this tricky situation among these three characters is inevitably resolved via the ending which I will let you discover for yourself, the movie moves onto a different circumstance where its three characters are rearranged in the same background. This time, Gabe is a movie director, and Allison is his actress wife while Blair is an actress who is going to perform in front of the camera along with Allison. In contrast to the sense of isolation hovering around the first half, the second half is filled with not only these three characters but also a bunch of crew members, and we are served with a small funny running gag popping here and there on the set as everyone is busily preparing for the last scene to shoot, which is also the most important part of the film.

As playing a wife suspecting her husband’s infidelity, Allison is supposed to express lots of anger and jealousy in front of the camera, and she is willing to do her best, but her husband decides to do something very manipulative for pushing his wife further. He frequently behaves as if he is having an affair with Blair, and Blair is quite willing to be his accomplice. All they need to do is showing fake signs of intimacy from time to time, and Gabe also pressures and bullies his wife a lot whenever he can.

Thanks to Gabe and Blair’s nasty tactics, Allison becomes very unstable and neurotic as the shooting of that key scene is about to begin, and what happens next is not so far from the climactic part of John Cassavetes’ “Opening Night” (1977). Like Gena Rowlands’ volatile stage actress character in that film, Allison is not that well in her mind to say the least, but what she eventually does in front of the camera is sort of spellbinding as wildly bouncing back and forth between fiction and reality, and this moment sometimes approaches to the realm of horror, especially when the movie observes how enthusiastically her husband monitors and captures those raw moments of acting relentlessly erupting from his wife.

Needless to say, Plaza is utterly stupendous as expanding the range of her acting talent during this part, and she is also supported well by two good main cast members surrounding her. Christopher Abbott, who has steadily advanced during last several years since his harrowing breakthrough turn in “James White” (2015), did a fine job of conveying to us the untrustworthy aspects of his role, and Sarah Gordon, a talented Canadian actress who recently appeared in Netflix film “Vampires vs. the Bronx” (2020), is equally engaging as another crucial part of the movie.

“Black Bear” is written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine, who previously directed several feature films including “Gabi on the Roof in July” (2010) and “Wild Canaries” (2014). I have not watched his previous films, but, as far as I can see from “Black Bear”, he is a competent filmmaker who really knows how to handle mood, narrative, and performance, and I particularly appreciate how he draws a raw and uncompromising performance from Plaza. Yes, it is always entertaining to see a performer pushing the envelope on the screen, and Plaza’s considerable achievement here in this film is certainly something you should not miss.

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