Black Bear opens with Allison (Aubrey Plaza), a disillusioned actress-turned-director, arriving at a luxurious lakeside home. Its owners are friends of a friend Gabe (Possessor's Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon). They're in the early stages of turning the place into a bed and breakfast, making her the first official guest. Allison is there to develop a story for her next film. During a night of drinking and conversing, Gabe reveals a weird anti-feminist side that causes friction with Blair to boil over. Then a line gets crossed with Allison, leaving us wondering where this story could possibly take us next.
Where it takes us is not at all what I was expecting. If you're thinking of seeing the movie, you should know that it's probably not what you're expecting either. Let's just say that at this point, about thirty-five or forty minutes in, Black Bear changes. What we think we've been seeing is not quite what we assumed, and the relationships between Allison, Gabe, and Blair are different than we've been led to believe. I won't go any further than that. My only reason for bringing it up at all is that I wish I'd known that in advance. This is a very good picture. At the same time, it's jarring when you spend that much time investing yourself in characters and situations, only to abruptly transition to something else.
Of course, this is precisely the mystique of Black Bear. Follow it all the way through to the end and you realize how clever the plotting is. You're struck by how themes introduced in the first act are presented in a meaningful parallel manner during the second and third acts. Writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine may trick you initially, but he does so because it's a fresh way at getting to the themes he wants to investigate.
Without spoiling anything, the story deals with emotional abuse – what people are willing to do to one another, what they're willing to put up with, and so on. Allison is an individual with insecurities that can be exploited. She also likes to drink, a fact that pours even more fuel onto the fire of those insecurities. At the same time, she can be a little abusive to others, meaning she isn't just a victim in this scenario. Black Bear dives into the reasons why people manipulate or torment each other, as well as the often sick benefits of such behavior.
Since I don't want to divulge too much plotwise, I'll shift focus to how great Aubrey Plaza is in this role. Although mostly known for comedy, the actress demonstrates serious dramatic chops as Allison. Plaza has always had a bit of a dark side in her humor, a trait that is effectively used here, especially in a scene toward the end where the character has an extended breakdown. The twisted chemistry Plaza works up with the equally-good Abbott proves captivating, if intentionally uncomfortable, to watch. This is a role that could potentially change the course of her career.
Black Bear is one of those movies that probably plays even better on a second viewing, when you already know where it's headed and can therefore catch all the little signposts you don't notice the first time. Regardless, an initial viewing offers strong performances, some dark humor, and plenty of insights into bad behavior. It's a provocative, challenging work that shows the amazing Aubrey Plaza in a whole new light.
out of four
Black Bear is rated R for language throughout, sexual content, drug use and some nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.