Sometimes when you’re watching a movie, it becomes an out of body experience. Black Bear, directed by Lawrence Michael Levine, gave me that feeling. The film revolves around an actor/director Allison (Aubrey Plaza), and her experiences at a retreat whilst trying to cure her writer’s block. The premise is intriguing, but what really makes it succeed are the performances given by Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon. Without the performance of those three actors, this whole film falls apart.
Most of the time, a movie about mind games leaves you with more questions than answers. Black Bear gives you all the answers upfront and tells you what you’re in for. The only question is how it’s all going to play out. Thematically sometimes that can make the film messy, but, in this case, it only enriches the experience. Allison is a character that, throughout the entire movie, is a complete car crash. You never know whether to believe anything that she’s telling you or whether to dismiss it entirely.
Aubrey Plaza plays Allison with care and also astonishing vulnerability. This is her best performance to date, and most of that is because she’s entirely in her element but also completely outside of it at the same time. We love this particular actress for her quirky comebacks and her not caring about anything or anyone’s attitude. While shades of those characteristics are present in her performance, the performance’s real gem comes to light when she’s vulnerable and broken.
Allison is a character who has a lack of reverence for everything in her life. Watching that play out is more horrific than if the entire film were a horror movie. This is a horror movie about the choices we make in life and how the consequences of those choices can affect us. The reactions of the people around Allison key the audience into how much destruction she is actually causing. Plaza never overplays those emotions and always stays within the truth of the story. She is the only one who could make material like this sing and be relevant at the same time.
Most of the problems in the entire film, story-wise, are not problems at all, just facets of how people can manipulate and control those around them. A lot of those moments of conflict come from Gabe (Christopher Abbott). He is the ultimate pot-stirrer, and for me, even though he causes most of the drama, he also is the one who could probably use the most emotional support in terms of figuring out his life.
Gabe also has a partner named Blair (Sarah Gadon), who is by my guess seven months pregnant and very irrational not due to the pregnancy, but the distrust she has in her boyfriend. Gadon has the second most difficult task of the entire movie, acting as the practical one when everyone around her wants to create chaos and distrust. Her performance is understated and extremely valuable in making the story work.
When you can’t trust either the people around you or yourself, how do you move forward? That’s the simple question the movie is trying to propose. The movie asks us to believe the story we are told about how she operates, but I also value how she messes up. The characters in this film are flawed, and that’s what we go to the movies for. We can’t have things be perfect. Black Bear gets us as close to human emotions and character flaws as we will possibly be when viewing a story in 2020. Does that make this film perfect? No. However, it does make it one of the most astonishing watches of 2020, thanks to the lead performance by Aubrey Plaza.
Black Bear is one of those journeys you have to go on just to say you did. The amazing thing is you might learn a bit about yourself afterward. Isn’t that all we ever ask of movies attempting to tell great stories? It is for me.