Black Bear, 2020.
Directed by Lawrence Michael Levine.
Starring Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon, and Aubrey Plaza.
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.
Sometimes a film can feel so deeply personal that it almost feels intrusive to watch. Yes, a filmmaker helms a project to show it to a wide audience, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t bearing every inch of their soul. Not only is that a big part of the actual plot of Black Bear, but it’s also how I felt about Lawrence Michael Levine after watching. While hopefully not autobiographical, you feel like Levine opened up a fever-dream journey entry and let it spill out on the screen.
Black Bear is the most spell-binding movies I’ve seen this year, with such magnetic acting and a twisted story that makes you hang onto every word. Though, I do question why this is labeled “comedic” in some places as I haven’t felt so unnerved and anxious since the finale of Aronofsky’s mother! in 2017.
There’s a raw energy to this that feels like you are watching a high-intensity drama from an era long-gone like an Edward Albee play. Albee’s work, including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, feels like a massive inspiration here. The volatile dialogue, the heat radiating between characters, and diving into a couple’s interpersonal drama all harken back to that time. It helps make Black Bear feel like an enduring story that will seemingly always be relevant as long as drunk people fight over their lives.
No movie in 2020 has made me audibly gasp and say “oh no” more than this on a basic film viewing-level. Seriously, this is the type of drama and tension that many filmmakers yearn to create but very rarely succeeded at doing. Watching these characters spiral and go down some strange paths is just far more entertaining than it should, and does make you feel just as bad as the characters you are condemning in your mind.
The writing is so crisp, so pointed, and no word feels unimportant. Something is always happening, especially in the second half of the film, where the chaotic energy really picks up. But even when it’s just three characters sitting in a room, you are engrossed by what’s happening between them. It could be the script, penned by director Lawrence Michael Levine as well. But I lean towards the incredible acting that brings the words and direction to new heights.
Seriously, never has Aubrey Plaza felt more complete as an actress than in Black Bear. I’ve always adored her work and am the type of fan that will watch a movie even if she’s in it for 3 minutes. So, coming across this piece is a blessing as Plaza is on fire like I’ve never seen her before. No matter where the story is pulling her, she’s in control of the scene and commands you to pay attention. It fits so well into the film’s narrative, as we are seeing an actress and director spilling so much out in the story, so you really start to confuse the lines of reality and fiction.
Plaza is not alone in this as I have to commend Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon for their bold choices and enigmatic energy. With a character like Plaza’s Allison being this ball of fire, it’s easy to get consumed, but both performers keep up and give so much to this piece. Abbott’s role here is somehow the most annoying and endearing at the same time as I understood so much about him and made me question myself on why I felt for this sometimes unredeemable man. Gadon’s commitment and fire in the first part of the film are astounding and made it even more confused when her character switched up and made me feel so many different things.
Leaving people confused and on edge are surefire ways to isolate viewers, but there’s no doubt that Black Bear does that with intent and honesty. For a film made by an artist, about artists in their process, dedicated to another artist…you’d expect such a pretentious attitude. Still, it feels so grounded and natural that there’s not a hint of any self-importance. While deeply personal and about a particular type of person, some universal appeal to this story allows it to be accessible despite its oddities.
I’ve seen plenty of films about filmmakers, there’s a handful of bizarre movies this year, yet none have come close to what Lawrence Michael Levine does with Black Bear. It’s hard to call something unique in 2020, but this really is one of this generation’s most unique films. This will be Levine’s magnum opus.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★