BLACK BEAR. There are a lot of things movies have done with homes out in the country, from Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House through Withnail and I, and now with Black Bear. Lawrence Michael Levine's film made a big splash at Sundance back around the start of this year (which of course now feels like it was in about 1983) and for good reason. An away-from-the-city setting can be a good fish-out-of-water story for sheer comedy or for unsettling terror. Black Bear manages to not fall under either of those headings and it would be hard to find one under which to file it — one of its boldest strengths.
Actor-director Levine made 2014's Wild Canaries and is also known as the spouse of filmmaker Sophia Takal, who in recent years directed Gabi on the Roof in July and last year's memorable remake of the 1970s cult classic Black Christmas. Canaries certainly defied any easy characterization and, without giving too much away, that applies here, too. Offbeat psycodrama? Comic thriller? Trippy, Mobius strip-style narrative, only kinda not so? Sure, take your pick. Just see it and find out.
Other than its aforementioned setting, which in this case is an impressively sprawling and yet also claustrophobic and unfriendly house in the Adirondack country of upstate New York, Black Bear's real punch comes from lead Aubrey Plaza. Plaza's career over the past decade has wound from TV to indie films, both in supporting roles and the occasional lead, with varying results. She's worked mostly in comedy (and survived the Humboldt-filmed, er, peculiarity that was An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn, 2018). But this is a real breakout role. Plaza has a deadpan sensibility that's nearly visible from space but she also possesses eyes capable of a hair-raising range of expression. Here she's the first face and last face you see onscreen, wordlessly, and what she does in between propels the movie along.
Actress-turned-director Allison arrives at the remote estate and is greeted by Gabe (Christopher Abbott, quite sharp here, as he was in a couple of seasons of HBO's Girls), who is instantly a little flirty. This seems less than appropriate as the two walk up the road to the three-story house and are greeted by Gabe's pregnant partner Blair (Sarah Gadon). The house has been in Gabe's family for decades, and he and Sarah, refugees from New York City, are apparently trying to make their mansion and boat house into a sort of Airbnb for big-city creative types. In the first 20 minutes, it's not only rather clear that this business plan may not be the greatest idea, but that Gabe and Blair themselves as a couple and soon-to-be parents seem to be on far shakier underpinnings. Why they left the city in the first place seems to be something even they can't agree upon in their telling of it to Allison. Gabe "used to be a musician," says Blair ("I still am," he's quick to emphatically correct) and her career as a dancer and whatever else is a little murky. Blair drinks more wine than Gabe would like with the dinner that Gabe makes with little joy, and a George-and-Martha dynamic sets in.
How Allison's arrival plays into this tension is interesting from her opening exchange of perfunctory, cautiously hollow compliments with Blair ("You're so pretty!" "I love your bag!"). And Allison doesn't help things with her blunt answers and obtuse, maybe kidding/maybe not answers to Blair's queries. Says Blair to Allison, nearly as a confrontation, "You're really hard to read," to which Allison replies drolly, "I get that all the time." There's a clear, undeniable attraction toward Allison coming from an unhappy (and even flirtier) Gabe, and to say there is a plot pivot mid-film doesn't do it justice. No spilling the beans here but think The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981). OK, enough hints (I prefer that over "spoiler"). The movie is unnerving and bracingly funny at times, and Plaza has inched up to a new level, going to some places with this role she hasn't gone before in any comedies, and with this film, Levine should hopefully get on the radar above festival buzz.
Oh, and there is indeed a black bear in this movie. When you're out in the boonies, they're there. Along with uneasy people. R. 106 minutes. STREAMING.
David Jervis (he/him) is an Arcata- based freelance writer and editor.