Streaming Review

Black Bear review – Aubrey Plaza shines in a chaotic meta-movie

Lawrence Michael Levine’s bizarre melodrama is a compellingly crazy meditation on art and life, with career-best work from Plaza

The wide expanse of natural landscape can make for the perfect thriller setting. A house stood alone amongst gigantic trees, sat on the edge of a misty lake that never seems to end. One can’t help but feel threatened and unsettled by the looming presence of the unknown. Lawrence Michael Levine’s surreal new feature, Black Bear, is acutely aware of this terror, and so utilises it to spellbinding effect.

Black Bear is split into two distinct acts. In the first, titled “Part One: The Bear in the Road,” we meet Allison (Aubrey Plaza), a former-actress-turned-director taking refuge at a remote lake house in the hope that she is hit with some much needed screenplay inspiration. Her hosts, Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon), are a young, married couple with a baby on the way. Allison’s arrival ignites the already bubbling tension between Gabe and Blair; the couple bicker and make constant jibes, while Allison fuels the arguments by being purposely obtuse.

The first part plays out as an awkward and melodramatic display of marital problems and insufferable struggling artists, while part two… well, perhaps it’s best to say as little as possible, since Black Bear is absolutely a film that rewards going in blind. It revels in mindfuckery, contorting its already baffling narrative into something that’s so fascinatingly chaotic you'll need a good moment to take it all in after the credits roll.

Known for her dark, deadpan persona, Plaza’s presence alone is often used as a way of injecting a sense of the jarring into proceedings. And while her signature deadpan style is here in abundance, it merely acts as a starting point for a performance that becomes richer and more captivating as the film shifts and changes lanes. With great support from Abbott and Gadon, she proves her talents extend far beyond just comedy, resulting in her best performance to date.

Nestled amongst its layers of domestic chaos is a sharp, meta-textual take on the often cannibalistic relationship between art and the artist. How much of your sanity are you willing to risk in order to capture the perfect take and, when it comes to filmmaking, who has ultimate control? Black Bear is a slick rumination on personal trauma and the power of primal emotion – proof that even when the director yells “cut,” we are far from out of the woods.

Black Bear is now streaming on various digital platforms.

Where to watch

More Reviews...

45 Days: The Fight for a Nation – scattered but important look at a shamefully ignored war

This patchy but emotive doc explores the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the traumas it inflicted on the Armenian people

Ascension review – surreal study of China’s embrace of capitalist excess

Jessica Kingdon's mesmeric fever dream of a documentary sets the benchmark for just how dispiriting a 2022 film can be

Scream review – surprisingly smart riff on Hollywood’s reboot addiction

The fifth entry in the long-running meta-horror series takes aim at the "legacy sequel" with this satisfying slasher subversion

Cow review – moo-ving doc goes inside the mind of a beast of burden

Andrea Arnold's latest protagonist may be a dairy cow, but she still affords her the dignity and rich inner life typical of her filmography

Features

Man of the People: Gene Kelly and An American in Paris

To coincide with the classic musical's 70th anniversary, Lilia Pavin-Franks looks back on the complex duality of its leading man

Hidden Gems of 2021: 30 Films You Might Have Missed

From quirky documentaries to unclassifiable dramas, we highlight the films that might have slipped beneath your radar this past year

25 Best Films of 2021: Individual Ballots

Interested in who voted for what? You'll find the full list of individual ballots for this year's best of 2021 list right here

25 Best Films of 2021

As another cinematic year draws to a close, our writers choose their favourite films, from miraculous musicals to subversive westerns