Black Bear – Review

Cinema has been blurring the lines of fiction versus reality since its inception. In order to be compelling, it has to be believable, right? More than that, it’s been lifting the lid on its own creative process – everything from Singin’ in the Rain to 8 ½ – has offered us a glimpse as to what it’s like to be in the business they call show.

Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear offers up a little bit of both. It stars Aubrey Plaza as Allison, a writer / director / actor struggling to make a start on her next project. The film is split into two different sections – leaving you to work out which is fact and which is fiction – all the while providing an insight into the chaos of a distinctly unglamorous film set.

The film repeats the scenes of Allison in a red swimsuit, sitting on the dock, staring out onto the lake – using this repeated action to make it hard to distinguish if she’s doing this as herself or whether she’s doing it in character.

The first part of the movie sees Allison book a stay at the lakeside home of musician Gabe (Christopher Abbot) and dancer Blair (Sarah Gadon) in order to get some writing done. What plays out has to be one of the most toxic and tense dinner party scenes to ever grace your screen as Allison unwittingly becomes a witness to the downfall of their relationship.

There are debates about gender politics, thinly veiled digs about Blair’s drinking, insecurities and screaming matches. Everyone in the room feels like a loose cannon and you have no idea who is going to say what next.

For me, it was definitely the most interesting half of the film as it almost felt dangerous. There were so many glances across the room and barbed comments that you could practically feel the electricity in the air. From the minute Allison arrived at their home, there was a creeping sense of unease that permeated everything else. All three actors truly delivered something exciting and engaging during this section of the film.

The second part of the film ramps the chaos up a notch as Allison now finds herself as the lead in Gabe’s latest movie, which is shooting in the same lake house. This time, the roles are played out in reverse – Blair is the intruder in the relationship.

The film set itself is a disaster. The script assistant has no idea what she’s doing; coffee is being spilled almost on loop; lunch has given the assistant director explosive diarrhoea and Allison is clearly seeking the answer to her insecurities at the bottom of a bottle of whisky.

This section of Black Bear really draws your eyes to Plaza. She’s erratic and vulnerable; another victim of the Hollywood machine who quietly sobs and wishes to be a normal person again. She’s absolutely magnetic to watch – taking you with her as she veers from screaming matches with mascara streaked tears to gentle whimpers and clear cries for help.

The “movie within a movie” idea has definitely been executed better in the past. And, tonally, it feels like Black Bear can’t decide whether it wants to be a thriller, a relationship drama, an indie horror or an expose on the dark side of Hollywood. And although the three leads give utterly compelling and believable performances in both halves of the movie, Black Bear strives to be some sort of Lynchian/Nolan fever dream and doesn’t ever quite hit the mark.

Black Bear is screening at the Glasgow Film Festival until March 2. Click here to get your tickets.

Mary Munoz
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