Black Bear – VIFF 2020 Review

The deceptively simple premise of a tense weekend in the woods with a small group of headstrong but emphatic characters gets mined for all its worth in this chamber piece from Lawrence Michael Levine (Wild Canaries), and the results are paradoxically satisfying and inconclusive in Black Bear, a film that, when it’s working, plays out like a mumblecore Mulholland Drive or a Noah Baumbach variation on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? If either of those ideas sound appealing then the film might work well for you, but if you have to work in the morning you might want to give this one a hard pass.

The best reason to wrestle with Black Bear is to see and appreciate the three leads who each take a turn in the spotlight, though it’s largely Aubrey Plaza’s showpiece, and she hasn’t had a chance to chew scenery and illicit both sympathy and laughs like this since Noah Hawley’s short-lived but much loved tv series Legion. Here Plaza is the somewhat self-destructive DIY director and former indie starlet Allison, on a bucolic artist retreat in the Adirondack Mountains. The retreat is run by Gabe (Chris Abbott) and his pregnant partner Blair (Sarah Gadon). “We’re NOT married”, he blurts out to Allison, in Blair’s company, and the conjugal tension starts to steam.

Allison, in her pursuit for artistic inspiration, isn’t above playing the couple, and as Black Bear chugs along, she proves to be rather vicious and sarcastically domineering one moment, then vulnerable and benevolent the next. The interplay between her, Gabe, and Blair regularly makes for charming complications, awkward innuendo and some enjoyably juicy moments, but when a literal black bear muddles past (a recurring motif that’s a little too on the nose) like a comet portending certain doom, or in this case perhaps some very forced Lynchian melodramatics and Möbius strip messing around. Soon the movie becomes a skewed Hollywood satire that’s too meta for its own good.

There are some very funny quips and blackly comic moments throughout Black Bear. The indie film crew trying to get Gabe’s vision on film and on time is hilariously upended, for instance, with some weed that was deceptively downplayed as “mellow” is a great gag, and watching Allison and Blair basically “Betty and Veronica” Gabe leads to several amusing and embarrassed bits.

Sooner or later, and it largely feels like later, Black Bear plays itself out, having stayed too long while letting too many unanswered questions hang over it. It’s a movie that film school students and filmmakers will find more amusing than the rest of us, with themes and fixations better expressed elsewhere. Plaza is the main reason to be at this pretentious picnic, and as it shambles onward through the bushes with its maw full of trash, history licks a finger and turns the page on this minor and decidedly rather average bear.

Taste of Cinema Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.