It doesn’t take too much to get me invested in an artist’s work, and it was many years ago which I started to almost religiously follow both Christopher Abbott and Aubrey Plaza. Black Bear is a film that fell under my radar until one of our writers told me about it, and only mentioned the aforementioned actors starring in it. Suffice to say, I knew I needed to see this film. The film played at Cinéfest Sudbury International Film Festival, I was blown away and also had no idea where I would remotely begin to discuss it. I just knew I had to tell people to watch the film. This is what makes this review very hard to write, because just as others have done so prior, I’m here to say that I loved the film, but I’m not sure if I always understood it. I’m going to attempt to avoid spoilers but I believe to truly discuss this film, you have to talk about spoilers. So whatever is seen in the trailer of the film is fair game, everything else is off-limits. Wish me luck.
The film follows three characters, Allison (Aubrey Plaza), Blair (Sarah Gadon) and Gabe (Christopher Abbott). Blair and Gabe have a beautiful cabin that runs in Gabe’s family, and they’ve decided to rent out a room at the cabin for friends of friends. They’ve reached out to some of their creative friends, as Blair is a dancer, and Gabe is a musician, they both run in a field surrounded by other people who love to be creative. They’re both artists in their own way. One of Gabe’s friends Mike (later played by Alexander Koch) tells Gabe that Allison, a filmmaker wants to rent the room so she can prep and try to plan what her next project will be if she ever will make another one.
Right from the beginning, Allison plays as what some may call classic Aubrey Plaza – snarky, hilarious, avoid compliments, and putting people into awkward situations. It’s everything that an audience would expect from her. She soon breaks out of the mould and steals the entire film away in the second act, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The film is set in two acts, The Bear in the Road, and The Bear by the Boat House. Both acts and most of the hour and 45-minute run-time are a non-stop thrill ride, not in your classical sense of a thriller, but out of the pure drama that is manifesting on screen. The conversations, the raising of voices, and the emotions just are thrown in a blender and have you dealing with whatever insanity pours out of it after. It becomes claustrophobic and you’re trapped in the middle of it. If you’ve ever visited friends who incidentally are also a couple, but during said hang out, they begin to fight – and not a simple one, one rooted in hurt and history – and the reason you visited hasn’t happened yet, so you’re then stuck in the middle and waiting for it to either fix itself or just end, that is this film. Anxiously not sure how everything will turn out, but almost praying it will happen, and happen fast. There have two been reviews of Shiva Baby on our site, and similar to that, it’s anxiety and tension that are ingrained in absolute drama.
The second act takes place on a film set while still at the cabin – but the dynamics have shifted. While still extremely tense, with not only an on-going ticking clock of being on a set, but also the manipulation and mindgames that continue when we get to set. The second act (and film itself) bring up dozen of questions of art. Whether it’s when can you call yourself a working artist, or is it a hobby. Gabe does receive royalty cheques, but when the cheque is for 53 cents, you’re not truly getting paid for the work that you’re doing. It also makes you wonder about performance, and all the things that goes into making a good performance. Whether that’s pulling from your past, or your present to give shattering heartbreaking performances like the one Aubrey gives us in the film, or is it from the direction of the director who helped you manuever – or manipulate – you into giving that intense of a performance.
Frankly, as much as I am trying, Black Bear is a film that is better to live through rather than to try to understand, and that’s why I know after two viewings (and only a matter of time before it becomes more), I love the film. Even if I don’t truly understand it. But what I do understand is the writing and the script is impeccable, and Sarah, Christopher and Aubrey all get a moment in the spotlight to bear their souls and become vulnerable for our entertainment. Even if you’re constantly wishing all the fighting would stop, it is a car crash on the highway that you can not look away. And then when the film ends, and you take that first breath as the credits roll, you’re left thinking about Aubrey Plaza and not the titular Black Bear. Go seek the film out when it’s released on December 4th, and then reach out to me. I would love to actually discuss this film.