DIRECTED BY: Lawrence Michael Levine
CAST: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon
While most actors try to maintain a level of believability, Aubrey Plaza has made a career out of being impossible to read. With notes of suppressed anxiety and contempt for mankind, Plaza has always held some sort of enigmatic quality. Any uneasiness or awkwardness a director wants to cultivate is already there. She not only settles the audience into a level of discomfort, but makes the tensions of other characters not feel so harsh. The result is an audience who no longer has to stress about the unknown of how other characters feel because she doesn’t bat an eye. It’s fitting that her best performance to date would be in a film that’s equally as enigmatic. Lawrence Michael Levine’s latest thriller Black Bear relies on awkwardness and stars the actress as someone who’s erratic and mysterious, and she’s perfect for the role. Due to the project’s nature, Plaza is asked to switch between different emotional extremes, but also to lock into each extreme at any given time.
Black Bear is insanely easy to overthink, and while Levine allows a lot of leeway for us to interpret it for ourselves, it’s essentially a film about the writing process and, more specifically, writer’s block and how integrity can so willingly become distorted through the process of creating. The film opens up on a woman (Plaza) sitting by a lake, thinking about something presumably important. She then walks inside of a cabin and begins to write. What follows are two tangential stories about more or less the same idea, but slightly altered in both form and content. Amongst the absurdity there is structure. While the framework is bemusing, the narratives within both cinematic halves of the film are completely coherent. They each have a beginning, middle, and end. Essentially both plots revolve around a love triangle of sorts, and the complications that arise from jealousy and certain inherent dynamics that accompany a lack of communication. It’s difficult talking about Black Bear without giving anything away, but there are multiple layers to this film.
Each half is able to stand alone in its own right as a captivating, interesting story about love and agendas, without resorting to plot twists–only a set of constants and symbols if you know where to look. However, when putting each segment into the context of the other, especially with the puzzling framework around them, these stories take on a different meaning and we begin to think of them beyond the film that we just watched.
For as much as the characters talk politics and muse about sociopolitical dynamics in our country, there’s no stance being taken whatsoever. The banter only serves to highlight a writer’s role in crafting their script; breaking down his or her own philosophies; and temporarily sacrificing personal beliefs to fully and entirely relate to the characters, not only to expand upon them and develop them, but to better empathize with them (crazy, huh?). We’re allowed to ruminate on the bipartisan stance that writers must often take when creating characters at the risk of compromising their own moral code in the process. Levine, himself, must also take on both sides of the argument and understand each of them thoroughly before moving forward.
Black Bear’s ambiguity arises from the debate of life imitating art versus art imitating life. Which one informs which?
Perhaps there’s no definitive answer. When telling a story, you must often find the balance between telling a compelling tale and holding onto your own voice as well. Here we see the boundaries blurred between what’s real and what’s invented–a writer experimenting with what lines to cross for the sake of her art, and how much of herself to put into her own writing.
Occasionally a film will come along and attempt to make tangible a concept that can’t be. And while Black Bear is free-flowing and difficult to grasp, that’s also the point. Sometimes it feels too obtuse, and admittedly there are probably easier ways to portray writer’s block–even more definitive ones within this film but to create something that has people thinking about ideas and actually feeling certain emotions, even when the topic is as innately mundane as this, is a deceptively ballsy ambition, and one that showcases art in its purest form.
The film speaks to our obsession with fitting everything in our lives into narrative form. As we play out events from our own past, we try finding their cinematic value and structure. We might want to rearrange certain people to fit into different outcomes, even switch roles with someone else in that same story. This can be either conscious or subconscious, and sometimes both, especially when mining for creativity for the ultimate sake of creating.
Plaza tackles all three of her roles with three separate approaches. She plays each character in a way that’s so unique and specific to her own personality that we’re actually watching her corner the market on her idiosyncratic style, proving how valuable she is with the right material. And in a film whose nature finds it difficult for us to attach ourselves to the characters, Plaza is still able to connect with the audience despite all of this.
Black Bear subverts what we hold true about character consistency. The only actual character here is the writer, or at least we can assume as much. Furthermore, the procedural nature of the writing and creative process justifies the lack of an established tone within the movie. When you brainstorm, or even when you’re writing the first few drafts of a story, you have yet to lock down things such as tone or themes, and that’s reflected here.
Black Bear’s ambiguity arises from the debate of life imitating art versus art imitating life.
We often throw around the word “poetic” in reference to film. And many times it fits. But Black Bear is like a poem in the truest sense. It’s actually open to interpretation with no finite answer from the filmmaker. The movie never takes a definitive stance on what it’s trying to do, and some may very well see that as a flaw. However, what its ambiguity does is allow for the audience to relate to it on a multitude of levels, fitting into whatever they need it to fit into in that moment. If you’re a writer, then the connection might be a little more apparent. But anyone who’s worked on any kind of art can at least relate to that creative process–one that’s very much filled with intangibles which are beautifully reflected here in Levine’s own work of art.
Most impressively, the filmmaker actually knows how to keep our intrigue and delivers on that despite the enigma he very much provides us with. Sometimes haunting, other times tense and thrilling, and occasionally funny–almost unintentionally–Black Bear is entertaining just as much as it is thought-provoking.