Black Bear may as well have been called Bat Shit because that's how crazy it is. Everything worthwhile that could be said about Lawrence Michael Levine's film almost can't be discussed for fear of spoiling any aspect of what lies beyond the title screen, but I'll do my best. For starters, Black Bear is seemingly about the creative process with the question of, "how far is too far?" looming over every facet. Levine is an actor, director, and writer himself as well as being married to fellow multi-hyphenate Sophia Takal which undoubtedly inspired certain details of the film if not having been based outright on actual conversations the couple has had. Add to the mix Aubrey Plaza who not only takes the lead role here, but the role of producer as her relationship with writer/director Jeff Baena (Life After Beth, The Little Hours) no doubt assisted in her understanding of if not being completely empathetic to the material and her character of Allison. What is then immediately fascinating about Black Bear is that despite the large possibility of self-indulgence or - as Sarah Gadon's Blair might say, "the large possibility of solipsism" - Black Bear somehow manages to steer clear of its own self-satisfaction by essentially becoming something of a satire not necessarily of the people, but more of the circumstances they've driven themselves to in pursuit of this creative endeavor they've put so much stock in. What's curious is that said creative endeavors and the process such require in order to fully produce them are, by virtue of the fact they're existence is only justified by an individual's existential need create them, essentially exercises in some form of narcissism themselves. Does that then make Black Bear Levine's attempt to try and suss out his own level of self-awareness and assure those in the audience that no matter the level of commitment and passion poured into his projects that at the end of the day he's blatantly aware his work could have as little an impact as it could a large one? It kind of feels that way as everything about Levine's third narrative feature would seemingly mark it as your standard indie hipster typically found at Sundance, but by nature of the exploration taking place Black Bear more intends to dissect what it means to exist as someone that constantly tries to subvert the mainstream while still appealing to it in real-life situations. How do we best embody and represent our beliefs through our actions? Why do we always want what we don't have? How far is too far? Levine asks a lot of questions (many more than he answers) with Black Bear and though the ultimate theme, intention, and even point of the film isn't all that clear it still makes for a fascinating experiment in introspection nonetheless.             
Allison (Aubrey Plaza) is an actor turned writer/director who has escaped to the mountains in hopes of curing her writer's block.
Photo by Momentum Pictures - © Momentum Pictures

To discuss what is literally happening in Black Bear isn't as interesting as what is really going on in the film though, which is mostly subterranean. To understand the context of what is happening, at least in the beginning, is to understand that Plaza's Allison is an actor turned writer/director that has apparently made a few "small, unpopular films" and is currently suffering from writer's block. Not coincidentally, the film begins with Allison sitting on a dock seemingly in complete isolation only to soon venture back to a nearby, picturesque estate where she sits down and begins writing. A title card in the style of a handwritten notepad appears and reads, "Part One: The Bear in the Road." It is in the following scenes we learn Allison's bio and intentions for escaping to the Adirondacks Mountains via questions from the current resident and host at the emerging bed and breakfast, Gabe (Christopher Abbott). Gabe and his girlfriend, Blair (Gadon), have moved to the estate as it has been in Gabe's family for years, but his family been unable to sell the property and they have volunteered to help keep it up. This turn of events was somewhat serendipitous and other parts paralyzing for the couple who weren't exactly succeeding in their individual efforts back in Brooklyn. Gabe was/is a musician who brags about continuing to receive royalty checks, but who in reality couldn't buy gas station bubble gum with what he's making from what he wants to do with his life. Blair has also become unable to work or pursue her passion of being a professional dancer due to the fact she is now pregnant. It's evident from the first frame they share together that Abbott's Gabe and Plaza's Allison share something of a bond that creates almost immediate tension forcing the dynamic into what are needless to say: interesting and sometimes very dark places. 

Levine, who is also credited as the sole screenwriter, has placed Gabe and Blair at a point in their relationship when Allison arrives where every line of dialogue that comes from one of them is contested by the other. It's extremely awkward which is kind of the point as Levine's dialogue-heavy first act forces these strangers to stubbornly try and click as friends, but simply - can't. It's abundantly clear Gabe and Blair don't go well together or more that they are completely different people and that Allison is much more interested in Gabe than the overtly opinionated Blair. The saving grace from the tension and downright uncomfortable tone set by Gabe and Blair's constant bickering is Allison's dry wit via Plaza's trademark caustic delivery as it only enhances said awkwardness; confusing the tone of the situation. There's one moment specifically when Blair refers to Allison as a "real artist" in front of Gabe who has just made the effort to defend the credibility of his musicianship that sucks the air out of the room as it seems Blair is no longer simply sticking to her guns and speaking her mind, but intentionally making slights at Gabe in order to infuriate him. The sting is real. With the dynamic established to dryly amusing effect and given the parameters of the scenario everything going on in Black Bear would then make the casual viewer believe they know exactly where this familiar love triangle narrative is headed. Despite the seeming predictability of the situation or likely because of it, it's at about the forty-five minute mark that Levine then escalates things in ways that don't allow either his writing or the viewer to simmer on the guilt of the situation, but instead assaults his audience with consequences and ensuing actions head on. While this doesn't really illuminate what Black Bear is about or what it means to discuss what it does make clear is the temperament the film holds as it pulls no punches and doesn't for a second underestimate itself even as it uses its structure to manipulate the hell out of its audience. This is to say that as another title card in the style of a handwritten notepad appears and reads, "Part Two: The Bear by the Boat House" there is no telling where things are headed...or why they're headed there. 

Allison shares a special bond with Gabe (Chris Abbott) in Lawrence Levine's Black Bear.
Photo by Momentum Pictures - © Momentum Pictures

Black Bear
 immediately feels both like the most indie of indie films you'll ever see given many of the dispositions of the characters on screen as well as an assault on the subgenre thanks both to Levine's awareness and ability to hone in on the specifics of his experiences. Cutting through the bullshit of your standard Sundance programmer that tries to summarize its thoughts on the state of the world and provide some context or commentary through a single example, Black Bear instead goes for the throat by not only turning expectations around completely, but again - calling the characters and their egocentric tendencies out. Ultimately though, what is there to gain from spending two hours consuming something if - by the end of it - one is left to wonder what they are meant to take away from it? As nice as a thoughtful takedown of prima donnas typically is, there is obviously more to what Levine is wanting to do here than assess the seriousness with which "artists" take themselves. A level of indulgence is obviously necessary in order for anyone to be able to express themselves in a creative fashion, but the trick is to do so without the effort seeming to be an exercise in vanity and more an endeavor of earnestness. Even in the (somewhat creative) process of writing film critiques there must exist a certain amount of arrogance in thinking anyone might be interested in reading your nicely organized and concise brain puke about someone else's art, but it is running through this exercise around this film in particular that I've come to understand Black Bear's intentions better. Or at least I think I have. It's a coping mechanism, essentially. Creativity or the ability to be able to express yourself in this manner is a way of both dealing with and healing from whatever it is an individual might need to work through. It's therapeutic in a sense in that whatever darkness or pain might have come about or been experienced in life there is an option through which one is able to turn that around, process it, or even just simply share it in a way that's more productive than wallowing and/or wasting away because of said experiences or darkness. While the thesis coming into the writing of this review was that Levine might be attempting to gauge a balance in his life between genuinely understanding the world rather than processing his own views of it the realization I've come to is that no matter the impact of his or any of our work such expression needs to be looked at with a sense of optimism and hope rather than being dismissed as self-involved. After all, these are all just feelings we're trying to share with one another.

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