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Writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine deviously screws with our heads in Black Bear while at the same time messing with those of his principal characters, a trio played with a succession of intriguing shifts by Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon, all in fine form. A slippery psychological drama that starts out talky and perhaps intentionally distancing but becomes retroactively gripping once its big switch is revealed, this is a darkly playful deconstruction of the indie filmmaking process that digs into the artist-muse dynamic and the power structures in relationships, constantly teasing the viewer as to what’s real and what’s part of the writer character’s imagination.
That latter role initially appears to belong to Allison, a part that allows Plaza to underplay her trademark snarky humor while also delivering some of her finest dramatic work to date.
We first see her seated in meditative repose on a private lakeside dock that is part of an upscale estate deep in Adirondacks woodland. Ominous notes of Asian-inflected percussion in the score almost seem to suggest a horror scenario as Allison retreats to one of the homey pine living quarters and puts pen to paper. A handwritten notepad title card reads: “Part One: The Bear in the Road.”
The action then jumps back to Allison’s arrival at the estate, where the actress-turned-director is staying in the hope that all that green tranquility will unblock her creativity and illuminate her next project.
Mutual friends connected her with the owners, young couple Gabe (Abbott) and Blair (Gadon), Brooklyn transplants whose careers in the performing arts were going nowhere. Blair is pregnant and under doctor’s orders to rest, but sexual tension and the barbed comments zinging between her and Gabe make relaxation impossible. Their mutual irritation clearly has been percolating since long before Allison showed up. Still, the guest seems to take sly pleasure in their marital discord.
Around this time suspicion starts to arise that Levine is toying with us as the discussion lurches toward the didactic with Gabe’s eyebrow-raising comments about the erosion of traditional gender roles in a world going to pieces. Not for the first time, Blair is irked by his retrograde thinking, and Alison’s awkward attempts to lighten the mood don’t help. When the talk turns to Allison’s films, she freely admits they have nothing to say because she’s “waiting for something meaningful to happen to me,” which Blair says sounds solipsistic. Duh.
As is often the case when a character starts throwing around charges of solipsism, the same could be said of the movie itself. But with the free-flowing booze fueling everyone’s candor, anger, desire and judgment, Levine then pulls the rug out from under the audience by reshuffling the entire situation and the various players’ roles in it in “Part Two: The Bear by the Boat House.”
Giving away too many details of exactly how the triangle is reconfigured would spoil the self-reflexive fun. But basically, the scenario turns into the wrap day from hell on the shoot of a film within the film, which has elements in common with what’s come before while also representing a complete departure. The mind games get more dangerous and the emotional manipulation crueler, though if it elevates the quality of the work being created, does that make it all permissible?
Levine is asking more questions than he’s answering, but his obvious firsthand experience of the frenetic energy and escalating stress on a low-budget film shoot lends an air of chaotic authenticity to the unfolding events. It’s not just the bear rustling in the bushes that puts everyone at risk. There are wicked insights into the egomaniacal ruthlessness of directors, the neediness and rivalry of actors, and — in some tasty interplay from the expanded ensemble — the frictions and allegiances that form within a crew. The merciless capacity to inflict pain within a marriage also gets a look in.
In keeping with the radical shift, cinematographer Rob Leitzell changes up the visual style in Part Two, with the formerly fluid camerawork growing more agitated, even frenzied, as the schedule falls apart and panic takes hold.
The pieces of the puzzle don’t entirely lock into place, and Black Bear occasionally feels a touch too pleased with its own cleverness, but its wry commentary on the uncomfortable collision of art and life remains engrossing. The entire cast dive gamely into the experiment, but it’s Plaza you can’t take your eyes off in a turn that gets spectacularly messy as she falls apart then pulls herself back together then falls apart again. Or is Allison at the end of the day the one completely in control?
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)
Production companies: Tandem Pictures, Oakhurst Entertainment, Blue Creek Pictures
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon, Paola Lazaro, Grantham Coleman, Lindsay Burdge, Lou Gonzalez, Shannon O’Neill, Alex Koch, Jennifer Kim
Director-screenwriter: Lawrence Michael Levine
Producers: Julie Christeas, Jonathan Blitstein, Richard J. Bosner, Aubrey Plaza, Lawrence Michael Levine, Sophia Takal, Marina Grasic, Jai Khanna
Executive producers: William G. Sator, Andrew Chang-Sang, John Hills
Director of photography: Rob Leitzell
Production designer: Tracy Dishman
Costume designer: Allison Pearce
Music: Giulio Carmassi, Bryan Scary
Editor: Matthew Weiss
Casting: Allison Estrin, Henry Russell Bergstein, Jenn Gaw
Sales: CAA/Radiant Films International
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