Black Bear, written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine, tells two stories. One is that of writer-director Allison (Aubrey Plaza) who arrives at a rural retreat and is hosted by the couple that owns the place. The other one is about Gabe (Christopher Abbott) trying to make a film at the rural retreat. And through these stories, Levine explores the complexity of relationships and the art of filmmaking, which is taken to the next level by Plaza, Abbott, and Sarah Gadon’s performances.
I can’t exactly recollect where I had heard the notion that it’s truly a miracle that movies exist but with every movie that I watch, I believe in it more and more. It’s baffling that someone comes up with a story, writes a script based on it, gets the money to make it, shoots it, arranges it in the editing room, and prays that it is sensible enough for the people out there who are going to watch it. And even all that I said is a very gross oversimplification of the art of filmmaking. So, you can imagine what the general audience thinks about this industry. What’s the solution? Make movies on how movies or shows are made. Honestly portray the brain-wringing process and even if people won’t understand, they’ll hopefully respect it and thereby elevate the discourse around entertainment. In my opinion, Black Bear is a step in that direction.
Black Bear is written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine. The music is by Giulio Carmassi and Bryan Scary, cinematography by Robert Leitzell, editing by Matthew L. Weiss, production design by Tracy Dishman, set decoration by Jennifer Durban, costume design by Allison Pearce, and hair and make-up by Elizabeth Fox, Josie Rodriguez, and Kekepania Vasquez-Tamali’i. It stars Aubrey Plaza, Sarah Gadon, Christopher Abbott, Alexander Koch, Paola Lázaro, Lindsay Burdge, Shannon O’Neill, Jennifer Kim, Grantham Coleman, and Lou Gonzalez. The official synopsis for the movie states: “A filmmaker at a creative impasse seeks solace from her tumultuous past at a rural retreat, only to find that the woods summon her inner demons in intense and surprising ways”. But that’s a very surface-level reading because the movie is doing much more than that while telling the story of a writer trying to write a movie, a couple on the brink of a break-up, and a director trying to make a film.
Lawrence Michael Levine’s writing almost gave me an anxiety attack and I mean that in a good way.
I think that some of the biggest takeaways from the movie’s writing are going to be how layered the story is and what’s the meaning behind it all and the ending. So, before doing that, let me highlight why the layers are so impactful. It’s because of the dialogue-writing. On an unrelated note, there was a video of steam emanating from someone’s hand and the caption stating that that’s what Rian Johnson must’ve felt like after finishing the script for Knives Out. I want to say the same for Levine. The insane amount of character revelations that he punches into every single overlapping line of dialogue truly blew me away. There aren’t a lot of difficult words. There is little-to-no exposition. Every layer is peeled back through dialogue that you and I would have any day. Therefore, you can always follow what the characters are saying and have an intense reaction to it, even if you can’t relate to them. That’s mind-blowing. I had to pause the dinner scene twice just to take a breather. That’s how intense the altercations are.
Coming to the story itself. I think that there are multiple ways you can view the movie. One way is that Allison comes to live with Gabe and Blair. The things that happen in the first act actually happen, and in order to disassociate with the guilt of it all, Allison reimagines the whole incident from a different perspective and portrays herself as this tragic figure in the second act. Another way to look at it is that they’re redrafts of the same story that Allison is writing during the opening segment of the movie. In one act, the artistic process is metaphorical and is depicted through Blair’s pregnancy and Allison’s efforts to salvage it. And in the second act, it’s all too literal and Allison dives into the minutiae of how personal and professional lines are blurred while making a film and the pain they endure or inflict for the sake of entertainment and artistic expression. In my opinion, those two and all other interpretations work as it ultimately depicts the laborious nature of creating any kind of art.
Lawrence Michael Levine’s direction is so precise and yet free-flowing that you’ll find yourself way too involved in the story.
Levine’s approach is widely different in the two parts of the story. So, let’s deal with them in the order that they happened. The first part of the movie is centered around anxiety. So, there’s very little camera movement. Everything is static. And the main focus is on the interaction between Allison, Gabe, and Blair, and they’re edited to perfection. As I mentioned before, I had to pause two times because I thought I was going to have a heart attack. That’s because editor Weiss leaves little to no breathing room. There’s information, reaction, contradiction, reaction to contradiction, and then new information. And this happens so fast that you’re bound to get whiplash. Please keep in mind that I mean all that in the most positive way possible because that kind of unnerving atmosphere, which is only ramped up for being in contradiction with the warm, pastel colour tone and serene sound design, is important to this half of the story since it likely signifies the creative process.
The second half of the movie is probably about the disgust that is synonymous with creation (Please keep in mind that this is just my take on Levine’s work and probably not even close to what Levine was saying). And the absolute chaos that is displayed on-screen via the hand-held camerawork, the overbearing set design, the continuously shifting perspectives, the uncut shots (Which FYI creates another form of anxiety), the overwhelming sound design, the copious amounts of food, booze, and shit is undoubtedly impressive as f*ck. And can you imagine having two sets of every filmmaking equipment in that cramped space because one has to be behind the camera and another has to be on camera to show they’re shooting? Mind-boggling! That said, I think that’s the most honest portrayal of what it must feel like i.e. a mixture of beauty and ugliness to go from conception to execution and that too while depending on a whole army of people.
Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, and Sarah Gadon deserve all the awards and so does the rest of the supporting cast.
I am a fan of Aubrey Plaza since her Parks and Recreation days. So, if you think that you cannot read my very biased opinion about her performance, then feel free to skip this part because I am going to gush about her. Plaza is simply visceral. There’s a line where Gabe tells her character, Allison, that this movie is going to change her life. I both agree and disagree with the meta-ness of that line. I think Plaza is already a hugely talented actress who’s building a diverse filmography. I also think that her performance is going to take that filmography to the next level. She is sinister, manipulative, smart, attractive, and unpredictable in the first half. In the second half, she is all over the place, jealous, over-the-top, and disoriented. And if the deftness with which she handles all that doesn’t convince everyone how good she is, I am sure her breakdown scene is going to do the job. I cried with her.
Abbott and Gadon are equally good. Abbott is a gaslighting piece of shit in the first half and he gives off this leech-like aura through his performance. His body language has a sense of lethargy after dealing with his marriage and the weight of his idiotic behaviour and the lies that he tells himself and his wife everyday. It feels so real that I loved it. And his chemistry with Gadon is so smooth-running. I mean the relationship between their characters isn’t smooth in any way. But the back-and-forth between them is so snappy and on point. Gadon is brilliant! The movie doesn’t get up close and personal with Gadon as it does with Plaza during the second story. So, maybe a lot of the subjectivity is not palpable. But I think she really got into the skin of her characters and knocked it out of the park. The supporting cast around these three is amazing as well! They don’t get a lot of screen time but they absolutely nail their parts.
I was excited to see Black Bear ever since I laid eyes on the trailer and there’s something neat about the movie meeting your expectations and exceeding it. The performances are out of this world with Aubrey Plaza being the highlight of the movie. The writing, direction, cinematography, editing, set design, production, and every single aspect of the film is pitch fu*king perfect. I just think that the ending was unnecessarily ambiguous. Maybe that opinion will change upon a few rewatches. Regardless of that, I am going to say that Black Bear is one of the best movies of the year. I hope that people watching understand the process of creation and what must’ve gone into creating this movie itself and come out of it with a newfound appreciation for the art of filmmaking.
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Cover artwork by Bhavya Poonia/Mashable India