Writer/Director Lawrence Michael Levine is a filmmaker who spins strange yarns delivered through often uncomfortable conversations that are generally a combination of superb realism and the utterly implausible. In much the way several scenes in Wild Canaries and Always Shine play out, Black Bear is almost entirely a film of conversations in which people say things that feel genuine and true to their characters, but they are nevertheless conversations you can’t find a way to believe they are having in the first place. There’s a certain genius in this, because nothing instills unease in an audience better than a conversation so awkward you can’t imagine it taking place, but it’s also its own highwire walk with the slightest misstep likely to unravel everything.
Black Bear cranks things up a few notches by throwing people into these conversations before we have any way to know what fits their character, and after about forty minutes it doubles down on this by making sure that we know nothing about anyone. It’s a move that hints at discomfort merely for discomfort’s sake, and opens the door for an equal chance of riveting dissection and bewildered disinterest. There is no way to guess where you’ll land.
The film opens with Allison (Aubrey Plaza), suffering from writer’s block apparently, arriving at a remote home in the Adirondacks. Blair (Sarah Gadon) and Gabe (Christopher Abbott) rent out a room in their lakeside house specifically as a retreat for creative types, because they need the money and want to “meet interesting people.”
For many, this is already a scenario awkward enough to be put on edge, but Gabe and Blair are a couple with a stream of issues, insecurities, and festering wounds, and they don’t mind dragging it all out in front of a woman they just met. Allison, perhaps actually as a defense mechanism, as Blair suggests, or perhaps because she finds herself trapped in someone else’s marital counseling session, jabs and snarks her way through the evening. Although the dialog frequently feels played out, Blair (who is pregnant) accuses Gabe of adopting gender philosophies that simply mask his wish that women went back to being pregnant and in the kitchen, it’s the sheer audacity inherent in everyone that makes every moment less real than the last, and by virtue of this somehow more real. The situations are beyond mad, but the reactions to being in them approach honesty.
Hopefully steeling beyond what is often trying wordplay, we suddenly find ourselves face to face with the near barbarity of ethical display at work in what is, though perhaps put forward hyperbolically, “normal” interaction. When Gabe talks about his work, Blair immediately points out that he doesn’t actually make any money, and doesn’t let it lie there, but backs the claim up with supporting evidence. Why? Throughout our initial night, the entire saga seems an attempt by all parties to weave drama out of the innocuous. At a later point in the film, a director berates an actress for sport because he thinks it will get a great scene out of her, and follows that up by feigning interest in another actress because his wife’s wild jealousy will play well on camera.
Whether it’s a director with writer’s block thrown in with a deliriously unhappy couple, or, when events shift gears, the crew of a low-budget film trying to wrap the last day of shooting, Black Bear is a strange and rambling montage of characters and scenes that are a Kantian nightmare. A vision quest exploration of the manipulation embedded in nearly every human interaction, and it is ultimately so teeming with ethical failure that it is hard to know where purpose ends and accident begins. Are we witnessing a crew ignoring the sick among their number as another example of other people being mere means to an end, or because Lawrence Michael Levine is so guilty of what he’s exposing that he’s unaware his plot device serves more than its most obvious purpose? It’s hard to be sure.
In the end, there is less life to Black Bear than one might hope, and at certain points it drifts too far toward becoming a sounding board for none-too-deep thoughts, but it’s a wild and engaging ride buoyed almost unbelievably by Plaza’s ability to pull you in when you aren’t even sure who she is supposed to be, or if she indeed knows herself. That sense of uncertainty is the true test of the film, and possibly its bravest move, because the audience has to accept not being quite sure what’s going on, or why they should keep watching, which really means they’re being manipulated.