Aubrey Plaza was catapulted to stardom via sitcom Parks and Rec, she’s become quite the darling of the indie film circuit as both star and driving force behind agreeable films like Ingrid Goes West and The Little Hours. Writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine casts her both with and against type in Black Bear, an indie film about indie film-making that may put many off with heavy-duty introversion, but certainly makes good on a fairly gnomic worldview. If nothing else, Plaza’s many fans will be interested to see where she takes her traditionally snarky on-screen persona next…
Black Bear comes in two parts, separated by an interstitial that sees Plaza in a red swimming costume sitting on a jetty, then retreating to her room to write. In the first part, she plays Allison, an actress/writer who arrives at a writers’ retreat looking for inspiration. Instead, she finds a feuding couple, Gabe (Possessor’s Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon). Blair is pregnant, Gabe is flirtatious, and after downing copious amounts of wine and pot, the three enters a Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf? level screech-fest and tragedy ensues.
Wait, haud the bus, stop the count, let’s reboot and start all over again. Forty minutes in, this whole writers’ retreat narrative gets shelved and we reboot. Now we’re watching the film-makers making the film we just saw in the same remote location, with Gabe now directing, but Allison and Blair are playing the opposite roles and Gabe is Allison’s partner. There’s still oodles of infidelity, drinking and abuse going on, and having a dozen crew-members wandering around doesn’t help the atmosphere. Allison has something of a melt-down, while Gabe struggles to get the shoot completed.
Black Bear is a very self-conscious and deliberately arty film that has two strong, engrossing halves; certainly the evocation of an indie movie struggling to get over the line on the final day of shooting feels real, as do the creative squabbles of the first section But putting all this together doesn’t reveal much; there’s no real punch-line here other that some rather strained stuff about a black bear that feels very much Symbolism 101. Plaza, Abbot and Gadon all excel in the acting stakes, but despite genuine ambitions and originality, the deliberately unsatisfactory nature of the piece as a whole makes it for star-fans only. That said, there’s plenty of fans of Plaza who will be keen to see her take on some real dramatic meat here.
Black Bear is out in the UK on digital from today (April 23rd 2021).
Thanks to Vertigo for advanced access to this title.