Most, if not all of us, have been there.
You meet an outgoing, friendly couple who know each other’s rhythms and idiosyncrasies, but all those things that initially fanned the flames of romance are now irritating and grating. They’re still smiling, but it’s clear they can’t stand each other, and it’s incredibly awkward to be in the same room with them.
Aubrey Plaza’s Allison finds herself in that situation when she meets Christopher Abbott’s Gabe and Sarah Gadon’s Blair in “Black Bear,” writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine’s pulse-pounding, psychological mind-bender of a movie, which is really like two movies in one, or should I say, a movie within a movie, and it’s best for you to take the journey without me laying it out for you. Suffice to say Levine has fashioned a twist-filled gem that leaves us a bit drained but also a little bit exhilarated by all its peaks and valleys and sharp curves.
“Black Bear” is the latest in a long line of 2020 movies set in a remote locale where a seemingly relaxing getaway quickly turns into something else. (See: “The Relic,” “You Should Have Left,” “Becky,” “The Lodge,” “The Rental,” “Four Kids and It,” et al.) Allison is an actress-turned-filmmaker who arrives at an Architectural Digest-friendly country lodge in the Adirondacks and is welcomed by the owners, Gabe and Blair, artsy millennials who recently moved from hipster Brooklyn to the lodge, which has been in Gabe’s family for generations, when their respective careers stalled out. For now, Allison is the only guest.
“So, do you guys have a plan for this place?” Allison asks in the early stages of a dinner.
“I don’t really know what we’re doing,” Gabe replies. “We just sort of put the word out to our friends that are creative or whatever, that we have this place that would make a great retreat, or maybe even a place to do film shoots.”
(Like many a seemingly innocuous line in “Black Bear,” Gabe’s comments will take on an added resonance later in the story.)
“We thought we could meet some cool people and maybe make a little money,” Blair says, and Gabe jumps in and says, “Well, it wasn’t really about the money,” and the first cracks in their marriage begin to appear. Gabe is immediately attracted to Allison, and Blair is immediately aware of that. Blair is two months pregnant but says the doctor told her she could have a little wine, and the camera focuses on Gabe’s deeply annoyed expression when Blair pours herself more than a little wine. When Gabe says he still considers himself a musician, Blair laughs and notes his last royalty check was for 53 cents. They bicker with each other about everything – much to the warped amusement of Allison, who shares some background stories about herself that may or may not have any basis in reality, just to add to the warped vibe of the evening.
This is the first half of “Black Bear,” titled “Part One: The Bear in the Road.” Plaza, Abbott and Gadon deftly handle the “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”-style dialogue, and the conflicts and sexual tension continue to escalate, and then something shocking happens – and then we’re plunged into “Part Two: The Bear by the Boat House,” and we’re still at that country estate with Allison, Blair and Gabe, but they’ve been moved into different places like pieces on a chessboard, and now we’re in that aforementioned movie-within-a-movie. Writer-director Levine is working from experience when he takes us inside the inner workings of an independent film crew (although the people I know who work on film crews are by and large much nicer and far more competent than this group), and the psychological manipulations and emotional mind games multiply and fester throughout the locale.
Aubrey Plaza is her usual fantastic, sardonic self in the first half of “Black Bear,” but she takes it to the next level in a raw and brutally effective performance in “Part Two,” playing a gifted and extremely brittle woman who pours her emotions into her performance and literally winds up on the floor, exhausted and broken, after one final take. “Black Bear” can be a tad self-congratulatory with all the hipster mirroring scenes reflecting and refracting this way and that, and one feels slightly frustrated by certain loose ends that are never tied up. Still, it’s an original and bold and sometimes brilliant piece of filmmaking, with Plaza delivering one of the best performances in any movie this year.