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  Black Bear Ursine About
Year: 2020
Director: Lawrence Michael Levine
Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon, Paola Lazaro, Grantham Coleman, Lindsay Burge, Lou Gonzalez, Shannon O'Neill, Alexander Koch, Jennifer Kim, Kevin Barker, Mary Morello, Rob Turbovsky, Haitoaa Zeng
Genre: Comedy, Drama, WeirdoBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Allison (Aubrey Plaza) is a film star of sorts who has decided to make the move into directing, and to do so has moved to a remote retreat in the forest where she can better get her head together. The people in this lake house she has settled on are a young married couple who are also feeling the need for change, as Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his career as a musician aren't going anywhere, and Blair (Sarah Gadon) has her approaching baby to concern her, and she hopes her husband will be there for her as well. However, the presence of this third person into their little world will prove more of an upset than they realise, after all, as Allison mentions, she is very hard to read...

Aubrey Plaza was offered a role that was written especially for her in Black Bear, a purposefully enigmatic piece that not only played to her strengths, but her ideas of stretching those talents as well. Lawrence Michael Levine was the writer and director here, no surprises to see he was an indie specialist both behind the scenes and in front of the camera as an actor, though he chose to stay behind it for this project. However, as with her standout turn in the television series Legion, Plaza's choices were not about to be pinned down to anything as simple as a comedy turn or something more conventionally dramatic, as once again she was trying an example of how weird she liked to get.

What began as straightforward drama with a smattering of comedy in the character, took a left turn halfway through, not as a twist, necessarily, more as a shift in perspective from where we had been before which encouraged the audience to reassess what we had been watching, though it also had the effect of inviting us to ponder whether what we had previously, possibly been enjoying was supposed to be the most cliched and hackneyed indie-schmindie material imaginable. This was doing the script and performers a disservice when they had been very decent, the acting in particular a real reason for sticking with the film even as it threatened to grow far too clever for its own good, and maybe ours too.

Luckily, although there was that aforementioned shift, and we were left unsure whether we were still watching the same people we started with come that halfway point, the central trio were still providing a strong centre to the plot, or plots. Precisely what the title had to do with anything was as much a mystery as pinning down the finer details of what was actually unfolding, though there was indeed a black bear that appeared just as events were coming to a head, not only once, but twice. While the first part was a relationship story that seemed to be posing questions about gender roles thanks to Gabe putting his foot in his mouth when the subject comes up over dinner, the second part asked whether anyone in their right mind would want to hear about all that for the umpteenth time, and no matter the jokes.

This might be a cop out, except that Levine appeared to be digging deeper into his characters, sustaining the humorous angle, as we witness the indie movie set from Hell with tantrums, pointlessly manipulative crew members who would be wise to allow the actors to do their job without some pseudo-Method shenanigans getting in the way, any excuse to try to seduce their colleagues, and a general sense that this movie is going to take a miracle to rescue from the kind of oblivion that a film festival will merely act as a stay of execution. Black Bear was so cynical about filmmaking that you may be wondering whether Levine liked the process at all, or if he had anyone in mind when he portrayed it with such a caustic regard. But it was well worth seeing for the acting, especially Plaza's as she was well aware of the chances it was giving her and took them by the scruff of the neck and shook the life out of them - in a good way, even in the histrionics. Overall, probably too tricksy for the casual viewer, but if you liked to delve into these kinds of conundrums, it was Bergmanesque in its ambitions.

[Black Bear - released on digital 23rd April 2021.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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