A filmmaker suffers from writer’s block in jet-black comedy drama Black Bear, the latest effort from Lawrence Michael Levine. The initial plot sees struggling artist Allison (Aubrey Plaza) head to a rural retreat seeking inspiration for her next feature. She is entertained by expectant couple Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon) who own the lake house and after a few bottles of wine, the evening takes an unexpected turn.
Structurally, this is a narrative split into two halves, the first of which is an increasingly passive aggressive discussion. As bickering between Gabe and Blair develops into a full-blown argument over gender roles, drinking habits, and the state of modern society, the combative dialogue is excellently scripted by Levine. Meanwhile, Allison’s contributions to the philosophical conversation are suitably sarcastic, true to form of the dry-witted persona Plaza has carved a career out of.
For the second phase, the roles are abruptly reversed in an acute study of the filmmaking process itself. Gabe is now in the director’s chair, and Allison is his wife and muse for the shoot of an alternate take of the scene we have watched unfold in part one. A whole crew of new characters are introduced and there is suddenly a lot to digest in what quickly becomes an anxiety-inducing sequence. This bold switch to a meta style of storytelling might frustrate or alienate audiences. The look and feel of the film changes too, as the camera wobbles around the chaos, challenging the viewer and forcing us to consider which parts of the story are real.
The complex Russian doll concept asks a lot from the cast, in particular the three central performers who take on more than one personality. Christopher Abbott, furthering his reputation as prince of independent pictures, is great on both sides of the coin. Outnumbered by his female co-stars in the triple-threat opening, he captures the vulnerability of a failing, fragile musician. We then witness his transformation into a more assured creative but one that is weighed down by the intense pressure of his personal and professional lives colliding. Plaza is equally as impressive in her ability to turn on a sixpence within her performance. Moving from her understated modus operandi to the extreme opposite of this, she displays alarmingly good emotional range.
A film within a film within a film, Lawrence Michael Levine has crafted a thought-provoking indie inception, showcasing a career-best turn from Aubrey Plaza.