This review is part of our Sundance 2020 coverage.
The Pitch: Spiky filmmaker Allison (Aubrey Plaza) accepts an invite to come to the remote, well-furnished cabin of charismatic musician Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant, high-strung partner Blair (Sarah Gadon), who rent out the place as a retreat for fellow artists to rejuvenate their creative juices. They drink, they talk, they push each other’s buttons. Allison’s presence brings out long-simmering resentments between Gabe and Blair which have been bubbling just below the surface. There’s weed, challenges, and arguments, and, eventually, the presence of a black bear that’s been looming just outside the woods. Then Black Bear switches everything up in its second half, and the film becomes so much more.
Cabin in the Woods: It’s so difficult to describe Lawrence Michael Levine’s quirky, darkly funny, heartbreakingly incisive drama in its totality. At first, it sells itself as the kind of well-acted, but modestly staged psychosexual drama it was sold as on Sundance plot synopses (and, to be sure, its official marketing when it finds distribution). And for those first 50 minutes, it engages mightily on that level; the Allison-Gabe-Blair dynamic is one in constant flux, all three actors making a meal out of their calculatingly caustic dialogue. Are their provocations serious? Are they just messing with people? Is Allison’s presence really the fly in the ointment, or is she just a witness to a spectacular blowout between a couple that shouldn’t be together?
Levine, husband to Always Shine and Black Christmas director Sophia Takal, shares a lot of his partner’s cinematic sensibilities, and the verbal dance on display in this film’s first half feels extrapolated from one or two arguments the two may have themselves had at one point. Alliances form and are broken in the span of seconds, characters find themselves agreeing with each other until they don’t, and factions are split along political lines until they’re proven to be arbitrary. (One particular outburst centers Gabe’s… interesting feelings on feminism, which may or may not be simply the product of spur-of-the-moment frustration.) If the whole movie was this, it would be an admirable, if only sensibly diverting, indie thriller.
Day for Night: But then the halfway point comes, and Black Bear turns into something else entirely. (Skip this section if you want to preserve the joy of the flipped script.) Characters are rearranged — suddenly, Allison is a beleaguered method actress, with Gabe her demanding, exhausted director manufacturing an on-set romance with Blair (now just a costar) to motivate Allison’s “process.” The cabin, previously overwhelmingly empty, is now packed with cast and crew, each of them getting their own moments to shine as Levine weaves through the geography of the cabin checking in on a million little dramas at once. They’re concerned with nailing the final scenes of the film, but Allison (through a combination of drugs, booze, and diva difficulty) makes it virtually impossible.
And yet, images and dynamics and themes from the first half bleed through into the latter segment, making Black Bear startlingly cohesive in its incongruity. Whatever form Allison, Gabe, and Blair take, they’re deeply concerned with the draining, exhausting effort of creation — especially when it’s something as DIY as music or indie filmmaking. Levine draws these moments with a bold, graceful brush, making for a beautifully disorienting look at art’s unceasing ability to break you down to your component parts.
Ready for My Closeup, Mr. Levine: Abbott and Gadon are remarkable foils, to be sure, and they each get their moments to shine (Gadon, especially, in the film’s first half), but it’s Aubrey Plaza’s show through and through. Both of her Allisons feel perfectly calibrated to match Plaza’s cagey, mercurial intensity: she can give a sly, calculating look as well as she can unsettle with blood-curdling screams of emotional agony. It’s a startling performance, one that should hopefully get her the awards attention she’s been denied in otherwise stellar work in things like Ingrid Goes West.
The Verdict: Be warned: you have to go into Black Bear ready for its unconventional turns. It’s confusing at times, and refuses to hold your hand. But once you lock onto what Levine, Plaza, and the cast are getting at with its red-hot ruminations on expression and frustration, it’s borderline impossible to look away. More than a metatextual look at the struggles of indie filmmakers to gnaw at their own emotional wounds, Black Bear is an astounding showcase for its leads, and way more than it says on the wrapper.