Combustible Celluloid
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With: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon, Paola Lazaro, Grantham Coleman, Lindsay Burdge, Lou Gonzalez, Shannon O'Neill, Alex Koch, Jennifer Kim, Kevin Barker
Written by: Lawrence Michael Levine
Directed by: Lawrence Michael Levine
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, sexual content, drug use and some nudity
Running Time: 105
Date: 12/04/2020

Black Bear (2020)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Bear' One's Soul

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A split-personality meta-movie for film fans with a little more knowledge than the average bear, Lawrence Michael Levine's Black Bear is filled with intriguing ideas as well as thoughtful characters and potent performances.

Filmmaker Allison (Aubrey Plaza) arrives at a lake house, owned by married couple Blair (Sarah Gadon) and Gabe (Christopher Abbott). The couple are considering turning the house into a B&B, and Allison, who hopes to find inspiration for her next project, is their first guest. Blair, who is pregnant, and Gabe bicker irritably, and Allison's attempts to lighten up the situation fall flat. Characters begin drinking, and things come to a head.

Then, things shift to a "Part II," wherein the same characters are making a film that is somewhat similar, but also different, from the events of "Part I." Gabe is now the director, who plays cruel psychological pranks on the actors to gain more realistic performances. But his latest attempt backfires, leading to more trouble.

Black Bear is a puzzle that challenges its viewers to determine what the two halves have to do with one another, what it all means (if anything), and how the bear fits into it. It's the kind of movie that uses the word "solipsism." The movie's first half is mostly talky soap opera, tense, as characters react to each other's dialogue with agitation and defiance. But it's filmed with intimacy and flow, and it's as emotional as it is brainy.

The second half, while presumably happening in "reality," is far soapier, with more outsized emotions and erratic behaviors, combined with the chaos of a film shoot that is slowly going off the rails. (Terms like "the martini" are used for viewers with insider experience.) All of this allows the actors — especially Plaza — plenty of space to explore and find amazing edges and curves for their performances.

Black Bear wrestles with themes of creativity and male and female power, including a discussion of how the world has gone downhill after the "erosion of traditional gender roles," but perhaps its ultimate point is that, no matter how smart we think we are, nature is in charge.

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