Despite being set in a vast and remote mountainous region in North America, the atmosphere of Lawrence Michael Levine’s psychological drama, Black Bear, is stifling. As the film explores what it means to be an artist – from ego and behaviour to  influences, creative process, and even chosen medium – the line between artifice and reality becomes blurred in a wildly original display of metanarrative. Claustrophobic, erratic, and prickly all at once, Black Bear is an experiment in film which entangles its audience deep in its intellectual web.

At its centre is Aubrey Plaza as Allison, a witty young filmmaker who, having fallen prey to writer’s block, goes in search of inspiration at a lakeside cabin. Once there, her presence becomes a point of contention in the relationship between her two hosts, Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon), who happen to be expecting a child together. Plaza is probably best known for playing the offbeat queen-of-awkward April Ludgate in the office comedy Parks and Recreation. Some might also know her from her brilliant performance as a psychotic stalker in Ingrid Goes West (2017), or perhaps even from that time she accepted an award on behalf of Amy Poehler and proceeded to thank the devil himself before jokingly being pulled away from the mic. Plaza’s characteristic dark humour certainly bubbles under the surface in her portrayal of Allison, and the role almost feels as if it was created with her in mind. Black Bear’s comedy isn’t gimmicky, though. It’s too ominous and calculating for laugh-out-loud humour. Rather, the film borders on the absurd in the way it makes you feel so very uncomfortable, especially when the social blunders we are supposed to laugh are revealed to have toxic consequences.

When Blair becomes increasingly suspicious that Gabe is falling in love with Allison, tensions boil over, and all social etiquette is thrown out of the window. At dinner, conversations about film and feminism quickly turn personal as accusations of artistic failure and misogyny are thrown around. Black Bear’s oppressive atmosphere is also aided by its original soundtrack, composed by Giuio Carmassi and Bryan Scary. There aren’t any really ‘recognisable’ songs or, even voices – only very rarely are the mysterious instrumentals infused with some more melodious jazz. The result is an intensely insular focus on the loaded words, actions, and silences of the love triangle at the story’s centre.

Without revealing too much of the dramatic plot twist of the second act – which is well worth waiting for – it is at this point that the artistic anxiety and social discomfort which dominate the film’s first half become explosive. Passion, fury, and self-destruction take over as what some might first perceive to be a bit of a slow burn gets set on fire.

Black Bear is one of those rare films that doesn’t treat its viewer simply as the passive voyeur. It gleefully toys with its audience as much as the characters it pits against one another but, most impressively, you won’t realise what’s happening until it’s too late. 

Black Bear is available to purchase on Amazon Prime Video.

Art by Sasha LaCômbe.

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