NiGHTSTREAM Review: Black Bear

Year: 2020
Runtime: 105 Minutes
Director: Lawrence Michael Levine
Writers: Lawrence Michael Levine
Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon

By Tom Moore

A big hit when it premiered back at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine’s “Black Bear” makes another appearance at NIGHTSTREAM and while it displays top acting prowess from Aubrey Plaza and some unique themes about artistic vision, it’s underwhelming in its execution. The film follows a filmmaker named Allison (Plaza) as she stays with a couple at their remote lake house in the Adirondack Mountains in order to find inspiration for her next film. Upon her arrival though, the trio are quickly thrown into a battle for power as the couple’s, Blair (Sarah Gadon) and Gabe (Christopher Abbott), inner conflicts come to the surface and Allison finds herself in a situation that brings outs her inner demons. As things become more complicated and boundaries are tested, Allison’s pursuit of new artistic inspirations begins to blur the lines between autobiography and invention. One of the strongest and most compelling elements of “Black Bear” is Plaza’s performance as she truly commands the screen with Allison’s controlling personality. She’s clearly comes with a purpose that she’s keeping hidden to herself and although she’s never exactly truthful with what she’s saying, Plaza constantly piques your curiosity just to keep you wondering what’s true and what’s not. Allison is also a huge provocateur, at least in the first half of the film, as she elevates issues between Blair and Gabe by throwing opinions out there and trying to back pedal out of it. Even for her causing a rift between these two likely for the sake of some dramatic inspiration, there’s still a distinct charm that Plaza brings to the character that keeps you invested and intrigued by everything she does. black bear
“Black Bear” is a unique look at the film industry and art as a whole and questions the line between abuse and art.”
Allison’s story also reflects the film’s themes of the lengths people will go and the emotional boundaries that people will go for art. The emotional breakdowns that happen in this movie are brutal as hell and the second half of the film is a horrific look at mentally destroying someone in order to create more “authentic” art. It’s basically a skin-crawling amalgamation of stories you hear about directors terrorizing actors in order to “make them give a better performance” and it’s very chill-inducing at times. “Black Bear” is a unique look at the film industry and art as a whole and questions the line between abuse and art. It’s a great thread that’s well-maintained through both films of this film. Yeah, there are two. “Black Bear” is basically divided into two halves, each with its own story with the same central three characters, and it’s one of my least favourite aspects of the movie. The second half does bring in some more comedically light-hearted moments with some of supporting characters that are added and adds some strength to the film’s themes, but it takes such a hard turn to get there that it completely derails the momentum of what happening in the movie. The first half just ends on this insane climax and then just shifts into this new plot without any real resolution to it and it’s definitely not a smooth transition. This film has a big problem cluing viewers in on what’s exactly happening, and it makes the major midway transition super confusing. Not to mention, it’s just hard to figure out what’s really going on in the movie as a whole.
“Abbott and Gadon give really great performances since by the end of the film you absolutely despise their characters.”
Like Allison’s character as a whole, there’s a big question of what’s really happening and whether or not we’re seeing Allison be inspired by her time with Gabe and Blair or rather her own terrible experience. The film decides to leave things ambiguous and it doesn’t create a satisfying conclusion. Rather it just creates a guessing game that makes the entire experience of the film a bit of drag with how it’s withholding answers or reasonable plot explanations. Throughout the whole film you feel totally out of the loop and the viewing experience is even worse because the characters of Gabe and Blair are so horribly unlikable and unbearable to watch. Honestly, Abbott and Gadon give really great performances since by the end of the film you absolutely despise their characters. The dialogue they have in both sides of the film is super pretentious, the way they question everything and pick at every little detail of what someone says just makes your blood boil, and everything they do in the second half of the film showcases the worst in people. There’s absolutely no genuine redeeming qualities of their actions and they’re easily the most easily dislikeable characters I’ve seen lately. However, regardless how well Abbott and Gadon play they’re characters, they’re certainly not worth putting up with for an extended period of time and viewers are forced to fight the urge to just turn away from the movie so that they don’t have to deal with them anymore. The disdainful tone and annoying dialogue they have almost makes “Black Bear” verge on unwatchable because of how intolerable they are. There’s no doubt that “Black Bear” is something special in a unique way with how the film touches on artistic persistence and Plaza just grabs your attention with her excellent performance, but it’s undoubtedly foiled by awful characters and being overly wrapped in a mystery that’s not too satisfying to solve. 2.5 stars

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