There’s been no shortage of films and shows that offer a peek behind the camera to see how things are made. In fact, an entire genre of film known as the documentary exists typically to do just that: explain to viewers how the things they like get made. Rarely does that type of style blend into fiction, though. Auteur filmmakers might put their own lives into characters, but you don’t often see a film that uses visual and spoken metaphor to convey what creating art is like.
Black Bear is just that. A brazen, introspective, achingly realistic portrayal of the business of making movies, I haven’t been able to keep my mind off of it after watching. It’s not the most logical of films or even the most entertaining in a traditional sense, but it’s absolutely one of the best films of 2020.
Director: Lawrence Michael Levine
Release Date: December 4, 2020 (Limited Release)
The general plot of Black Bear is sort of hard to explain without giving away too much. A description from Sundance doesn’t exactly fit the bill but is intentionally vague to keep the element of surprise intact. The basic outline is that an aspiring young filmmaker named Allison (Aubrey Plaza) visits a remote cabin owned by Gabe (Christopher Abbot) and Blair (Sarah Gadon) in the hope that she might be inspired to write something for her upcoming film. Quickly she learns that something is going on between Gabe and Blair and their relationship basically disintegrates while she’s visiting.
That sounds like the plotline for a basic indie film, right? You’d be correct in that assumption because Black Bear soon reveals its hand: the opening segment is filled with purposely deceptive writing and an almost sinister vibe because it is a film within a film. The real movie isn’t about the relationship that is falling apart, but how that story came about from a calamitous and horrifying evening of filming a movie that pushes a relationship to the edge.
I don’t want to explain much else since that will ruin what Black Bear does so well. You’re often confused at what the purpose of certain scenes and bits of dialogue is, but then everything wraps up so nicely by the end that you understand what is going on. You weren’t meant to be invested in this otherwise generic dysfunctional relationship story, but see how otherwise decent people can turn into monsters in the pursuit of art.
This is definitely a film that is perfect for Flixist’s own Deep Analysis series, so I’ll spare the discussion of imagery and theming. Half of the fun is from discovering how things fit together and what the implications of those meanings are. Black Bear is almost like a whodunit mystery, just with more raw emotion and a gut-wrenching performance from Aubrey Plaza.
The acting all around is solid, but Plaza really steals the show here. At first, you’re not exactly sure that she was a good fit for this otherwise cerebral film. Her character is sort of a ditz and she mostly flies by like a stoned fool, but once you see the twist and Black Bear starts to delve into the process of creating movies, Plaza gives what could be the best performance of her career. There are some hardcore scenes here where the director is screaming at her and you’re not even sure if Black Bear has changed from a fictitious film into an actual documentary because of how real everything seems.
Plaza wouldn’t have been able to give that excellent performance if not for her co-stars, which also bring that same mental energy to the table. Christopher Abbot is the yin to Plaza’s yang here and he creates a real loathsome piece of garbage in the character of Gabe. Not above stooping to psychological torture, you’ll come to hate him by the time the credits are rolling. It really is a fantastic performance.
What is truly interesting about Black Bear are the parallels the film draws between its opening act and its second half. I’m not sure if the beginning was the story that inspired the movie or the other way around, but you’re given all of the cues and lines as if you’re an actor on set. Once you hear the director yell action, you can accurately predict how things will play out and it’s a real trip. A lot of time went into figuring out how to properly convey what it is to be an actor preparing for a role, almost like director Lawrence Michael Levine was guiding you into being the starring presence.
Where the film falters a bit is that it throws in some imagery that is seemingly too literal. This is something I’ve noticed with a lot of indie films like Black Bear, where the symbolism of its name simply doesn’t stand on its own. I’m not even exactly sure why the film is titled as such, but I certainly didn’t expect to see an actual black bear make an appearance.
The second half also introduces characters that act like comic relief. I know they are meant to showcase how tumultuous and chaotic filming can be, but I didn’t need to see a lady complaining about having explosive diarrhea while also vaping some “crazy stuff, man.” It just feels unnecessary in what is a film that focuses more on actors and directors rather than the stagehands and grips.
Those gripes aside, Black Bear really does deliver on almost every front. I’ve always been one for cinema that challenges me to witness uncomfortable material and that is present in spades here. The deeper look at how filmmaking can ruin people is probably not what most people would consider enjoyable, but that isn’t the intention. Levine has given us a look behind the lens to see that the people we might readily dismiss or criticize really do give it their all, even if that project is something of a train wreck.
If you’re able to deal with the harsh realities of filmmaking, then Black Bear is absolutely something you should watch.