REVIEW: ‘Black Bear’ is the Most Uncomfortable Kind of Intimacy

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Black Bear

It’s an exciting thing to feel totally unseated by a film. So often we, as viewers, operate in cinema with an understanding of certain rules and expectations. We know the beats of a comedy and the weight of a drama. Tone and expectation is its own kind of comfort in film. Comfort that Black Bear ultimately is not interested in.

Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, and Sarah Gadon star in this strange and sobering film by writer and director Lawrence Michael Levine. In Black Bear, a filmmaker blurs the lines of reality and fiction in pursuit of their art. Desire, dishonesty, and cold calculation drive the filmmaker and the people brought into their orbit down a path of sacrifice and detriment.

Black Bear debuted at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival to wide critical approval and it’s easy to see why. Everything about Black Bear positively screams “indie festival darling.”  The cast is comprised of Hollywood’s more quirky and unconventional stars, the script indulgently wraps in and around itself, and, of course, any film festival audience absolutely eats up content about the demands and sacrifice of art.

Black Bear is generally defined by critics as the ultimate scathing critique of the creative process. As with any self-indulgent film about the entertainment industry and Hollywood, Black Bear relishes in torturing characters with the emotional turmoil and suffering that they each endure for their art. The film approaches this using a few familiar, but dramatic scopes. The creative couple that puts all trust and faith on the line to achieve a more raw performance. The artists, full of promise, setting their dreams aside when reality gets in the way. Yes, Black Bear is a temple to creative suffering. That being said, the film is at its most interesting when examined on that more intimate scale of relationships.

Black Bear

Black Bear is a film made up of truth and lies, illusion and openness, intimacy, and concealment.  The writing is absolutely brilliant because it holds the audience in the uncomfortable tension of being too close to a situation. It’s like overhearing your neighbors in a lover’s quarrel. This was not meant for your ears and you’re learning way more about perfect strangers than you ever wanted to. Every conversation in the film functions this way. Every character overshares and reveals an uncomfortable amount about themselves, especially the parts of themselves that we all prefer to keep secret. At the same time, as we learn too much about the characters the audience also discovers that everything being discussed is a superficial shadow of all that lies beneath.

This threesome of characters is tragic and tortured and designed to bring out the worst in each other. The humor injected into the scenes feels just as uncomfortable as the conversations, themselves. It’s like an awkwardly placed quip, meant to break the tension, and it’s incredibly effective in guiding the tone of the film. This only works because the energy between the small cast is electric.

Aubrey Plaza is in a league all her own. Her character seems to have a thousand faces and Plaza singlehandedly maintains that sense of unknown and questioning. If Black Bear is hinged on Plaza’s portrayal of truth, then the audience is much more lost than we thought. As an audience, we’re trapped in the hidden lives and the sweetly spoken lies of all. In fact, the audience is drowning in it. Each performance one-ups the other, from scene to scene, and the result is so sickeningly human. This is an entirely human film. Our most base selves. It’s uncomfortable. That’s what works.

Black Bear is brilliant, it’s also a tad self-congratulatory. When the scenes are allowed to play out and less focus is put on the cleverness of this looping narrative, the film is a triumph. Aubrey Plaza is a force and she wields the raw and aching discomfort of the film with expert precision.

Black Bear will be available in select theaters and VOD on December 4, 2020.

Black Bear
  • 9/10
    Rating - 9/10
9/10

TL;DR

Black Bear is brilliant, it’s also a tad self-congratulatory. When the scenes are allowed to play out and less focus is put on the cleverness of this looping narrative, the film is a triumph. Aubrey Plaza is a force and she wields the raw and aching discomfort of the film with expert precision.