Nightstream 2020 Review: ‘Black Bear’ Claws Its Way Through Meta Psychodrama

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Black Bear, a darkly comedic psychological thriller, starring Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, and Sarah Gadon in a combustible cabin in the woods scenario.
User Rating: 8

As far as thrillers structure around cabins in the woods go, Black Bear is one of the best and most creative I’ve seen in some time. Largely working as a three-hander, with one location and a low budget, a film like this easily evokes the origins of other directors who were back into a corner to work with what they got and still delivered the goods. With that in mind, director Lawrence Michael Levine and his producer/wife Sophia Takal have plenty of experience in the indie world. This latest creative endeavor only further enhances what’s possible when taking older concepts and twisting them in exciting ways.

The film opens on Aubrey Plaza’s Allison staring off a lakeside pier into the distance. Her expression is hard to read. One character will say the same thing about Allison as a whole later in the film. She’s staying at a remote lake house as a guest. Musician Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant wife Blair (Sarah Gadon) own the house and are attempting to rent it out, despite issues they seem to have with each other. Allison, a filmmaker, working through her own creative block, makes an impression that only stirs the pot for the couple. This all leads the trio down a path that soon convolutes their lives in ways best suited by a tangled screenplay looking to find honesty in chaos.

Black Bear is quite clever, as it builds tension through open conversation, implies plenty through angles that make sure to account for each cast member, and takes pleasure in completely warping the film’s reality in a way I will not reveal. However, it happens a little under halfway into the film, where we then see just how twisted this journey actually is. That in mind, even as the film opens up its world in a subversive manner, the ideas introduced do not go away. Instead, they are amplified in further exciting ways.

Not hurting is the sense of humor presented in the film. As a way to balance out the stress level of the characters and the friction mounting between them, as seen from a distance, finding moments to let some zingers and verbal sparring come through to allow the film ways to balance the drama in a manner fit for a thriller with some bold moves it wants to take. And hey, if a psychodrama with metacommentary feels like too much of a head trip, just know that the title “Black Bear” is more than just a metaphor (you get to see an actual bear more than a few times).

None of what’s happening in this film would be all that effective without a solid set of actors doing justice to the material. Fortunately, they are all up to the task. As the driving force of the film, Plaza is terrific here. Playing into her established persona to the point of self-satire is one thing, but finding a way to bring out even more layers by the time the film finds new footing allows her to challenge whatever instincts she normally may have to deliver some truly complex work.

Not far behind are Gadon and Abbott, who also walk a fine line as far as playing into being a bickering couple, with very specific ideas they want to support regarding the social constructs of modern times proving to be a real battleground of a topic. That said, these actors also play into new angles on themselves, allowing for a reassessment of what’s been seen to a point, yet finding common ground they still share with other versions of themselves.

If it sounds like a lot, it’s not. Black Bear may have something of a reset button baked into its cinematic fabric, but it doesn’t come without purpose, nor is it tricky to keep track of. With ideas and jarring turns that seem to at least be partially inspired by films ranging from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to The Signal, building a darkly comedic thriller around millennials with a lot on their mind and specific targets to take it out on means getting a chance to take on something pushing on a line between authentic and artificial for the sake of nuanced performances and assured direction.

The vagueness may be a side effect of wanting to preserve how well-conceived Black Bear is, but so be it. Thanks to a desire to blend low-key jabs at characters with events that boil over so much the film actually breaks and then reassembles itself, there’s a lot here to enjoy. Even when things start to seem too twisty for their own good, the sense of humor and whirlwind series of events does more than enough to keep you locked indoors, rather than exit and be pursued by a black bear.

Momentum Pictures will release Black Bear in select US theaters and on VOD starting December 4th.


Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks,, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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