by George Wolf
As slippery as it is inviting, Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear is an intoxicating trip through the inspirations and indulgences that take root in creative minds.
It feels intensely personal, and yet – once Levine delivers his midstream shape shift – malleable enough to bend to myriad perspectives and interpretations.
We first meet Allison (Aubrey Plaza) as an actress and director facing a crisis of inspiration. She’s hoping to ignite the creative spark at a remote lakeside property overseen by Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant girlfriend, Blair (Sarah Gadon).
As the three get to know each other, we learn that Gabe inherited the property from his family. Beyond that, there isn’t much Blair and Gabe seem to agree on. The couple’s little barbs become more intense, as does the attraction between Allison and Gabe, and we think we have a pretty good handle on what’s soon to be up.
And then we don’t.
The opening scene repeats, but Allison and Blair are co-stars on the set of the new film directed by Gabe, who is also married to Allison. The shoot is chaotic, Gabe’s motivational methods are questionable and now Allison is the one jealous of Gabe and Blair’s cozy relationship.
Knowing that Levine’s own history includes films with his wife (actress/director Sophia Takal) adds a layer of intimate intrigue, and knowing even a little about the workings of a movie set will add relatable humor.
But Black Bear isn’t a comedy – except when it’s funny. It’s also dramatic and slightly horrific, depending on your viewpoint.
Most of all, it’s emotional, propelled by career high performances from Abbott, Gadon, and Plaza. The glee each performer takes in upending character expectations is evident, with Plaza seamlessly moving from a cool, casual customer to the emotionally frayed flashpoint of a volatile triangle.
After such fireworks play out, Levine’s payoff may seem a bit underwhelming, but his film is more about the trail than where it ends. Black Bear‘s got plenty to say – about creativity, ego, insecurity, sexual politics and more – but its resonance comes from not demanding you take a side.