Sundance ’20 – ‘Black Bear’ Forces us to Look at the Monster Inside Ourselves

Image: Sundance Institute

In the very meta, psychological drama Black Bear, Allison (Aubrey Plaza), a failed actor turned filmmaker hopes to solve her writer’s block by retreating to a peaceful lake house in the woods. She is taken in by a couple, Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon) who are using this as an opportunity to rent out their home to other artists. 

From the start, something feels off with this deceptively simple plot. The film begins with Allison sitting in the middle of a dock, staring out into menacing fog hanging above the water. After a beat, Allison gets up and walks inside to sit at a table, where she opens a notebook and writes, “Part One: The Bear in the Road.” This signals the start of the film, the next scene showing Allison’s arrival at Gabe and Blair’s home. The tension between the couple is clear from the moment Allison arrives, a kind of tension that the audience can tell has existed long before she got there. This is something that Allison appears to take pleasure inserting herself in the middle of, seemingly aware what kinds of buttons to push. 

This film is separated into two distinct parts. The first plays out more like a drama slash comedy, where Allison employs a certain deadpan sarcasm that allows the viewer to let out a reluctant chuckle, while still aware that something darker is stirring beneath the laughs. After an evening full of drinking and reluctant dancing, Blair begins to notice the sexual tension between Allison and Gabe. This only causes her to continue to drink more out of anger, despite being pregnant. The bubbling tension finally bursts after a heated conversation on the topic of gender roles, where Gabe and Blair cannot see eye-to-eye. It is clear this is an argument they have had many times before, and Allison’s intoxicated and inappropriate jokes only fan the flames. This scene puts on display such stellar acting not only from Plaza, but equally from Abbott and Gadon, who know how to throw jabs at each other in such a way that the tension always remains.

The film’s sudden transition to its second act is jarring; there is a cut to black in the middle of what seems like it could be the climax, to another title card which signals, “Part Two: The Bear by the Boathouse.” Then, back to Allison sitting on the same dock, a scene that has been sprinkled throughout the film almost to reset things, preparing the viewer to reexamine everything they thought they knew. There is a lot of symbolism to unpack in this film, especially the black bear that feels like it could always be lurking behind the bushes whenever someone is about to commit an egregious act.

It is in this  second act that the film switches things up, where it turns into an examination of the tumultuous marriage of a director and actor on a very meta final day of shooting a film. The vast empty house in the middle of the woods becomes crowded with a film crew and everything feels claustrophobic as we watch the hasty events unfold on wrap day. Black Bear looks to explore how far one can be pushed in a marriage, as well as how far one will push, all for the sake of love and art. At times, the latter half of the film feels even more comedic than the first, as the chaos that ensues amongst the crew inevitably causes some laughs. However, much like the beginning, that never fully distracts the viewer from the amount of pain characters are inflicting.

Black Bear is a rollercoaster, one that will give you whiplash at how often things are changed up. As expected, Plaza shines when delivering her sarcastic comments. There are some genuinely funny moments throughout, delivered from her as well as the rest of the cast. However, Plaza must also be recognized for her fantastic ability to completely unravel in front of our eyes. Towards the end, we watch her deliver a heartbreaking scene which truly shows the effect that cruelty from someone you love can have on a person, with some of the best dramatic acting we’ve seen from her yet. Levine’s Black Bear ends on an ambiguous note, inviting the viewer to come up with their own answers as to what everything means, and there is something so exciting about the prospect of craving multiple rewatches in order to dissect each scene.

by Alysha Prasad

Alysha Prasad (she/her) is an aspiring freelance writer who is going to be pursuing her Master’s Degree in Film and Television at DePaul University in Chicago. Her favorite films include: Call Me By Your Name, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Before Sunset. You can find her on Twitter at @leeshprasad.

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