Film Review – Black Bear (2020)

Spoiler-free reviews are essential for certain films – and we’re not just talking mega superhero ones. Nobody wants their viewing experience ruined by advance leaks about all those big surprises. But occasionally a film comes along where revealing something as basic as the plot outline can count as a spoiler, such is the intricacy of its structure and its enigmatic nature.

So let us introduce you to Black Bear, which arrives on digital platforms after showing at a number of film festivals since last year’s Sundance. We first meet film director Allison (Aubrey Plaza) as she sits on the jetty overlooking the lake at a countryside retreat. It has all the peace she needs for starting work on her next project. But all is not as tranquil as it seems, as the audience discovers in a film divided into two distinctly different halves. And any more prior knowledge of what actually happens would spoil the cleverly crafted journey devised by writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine.

What he’s pulled off is impressive in its complexity, with verbal, visual and narrative links between the two halves woven into the fabric of the film with such skill that it’s impossible to take your eyes off it. Its combination of sheer fascination and mental jigsaw puzzle, with a storyline that’s open to interpretation, add up to an addictive proposition, one that easily stands more than one viewing.

Levine has chosen a trio of leads with care and his investment in them has paid off. We’re used to Plaza’s deadpan style in comedies such as Parks And Recreation and, more recently, Happiest Season, but here it’s equally effective – arguably even more so – in a complex psychological setting where humour most definitely isn’t on the agenda. Whether she’s the hero or villain of the piece is open to question – and that also applies to co-stars Christopher Abbot (having something of a renaissance with Possessor and recently at this year’s Sundance in The World To Come and On The Count Of Three) and Sarah Gadon (Indignation and, more recently, American Woman). Both are, to use a phrase often associated with films themselves, hidden gems and the film not only gives them the chance to show exactly how good they are individually, but that they also have terrific on-screen chemistry.

Plaza, however, stands apart and it’s very much her film, in a role made all the more enigmatic due to the shifting nature of the narrative. Not that it holds her back: she gives her all, making this her most impressive piece of work to date. Is the film is thriller? A drama? A claustrophobic horror? All three? More? That’s down to you, but its twists and turns will give your mind and imagination the kind of work out they’ve probably needed for months.

★★★★


Drama | USA, 2020 | 15 | Digital | Vertigo Releasing | 23rd April 2021 | Dir. Lawrence Michael Levine | Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon.
Watch our interview with Black Bear writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine here.