Published on December 5th, 2020 | by Craig Silliphant0
Aubrey Plaza shines in one of her best performances in Black Bear, a somewhat experimental film that’s compelling even if it doesn’t always add up.
Experimental film can open up new avenues of storytelling that show us the creativity beyond the traditional three act structure — or it can seem like a tiring and pretentious wank. Writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear is probably more straightforward than surreal masterpieces like Eraserhead, My Winnipeg, or Un Chien Andelou, but it’s much closer to creative than wank on the spectrum.
The IMDB synopsis says, “A filmmaker at a creative impasse seeks solace from her tumultuous past at a rural retreat, only to find that the woods summon her inner demons in intense and surprising ways.” That’s not exactly the movie I watched.
Aubrey Plaza plays the filmmaker in question and she does indeed rent a room at a bed and breakfast, hosted by a young married couple, played by Sarah Gadon and Christopher Abbott (if it’s driving you nuts where you’ve seen him before, it’s probably from HBO’s Girls). Things quickly devolve into an uncomfortable Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf situation. As the film goes on, perspectives change drastically.
I hate these kinds of reviews because it’s hard to say what I want to without saying too much and it’s best to just experience the film. I don’t want to spoil it, so I’ll keep it vague. What I can say is that it’s an exploration of the creative muse and of filmmaking itself. It belongs in the pantheon of movies about movies.
This is a breakout role for Aubrey Plaza. She’s probably best known for the sitcom Parks & Rec, but she has street cred with me for films like Little Hours, Ingrid Goes West, and Safety Not Guaranteed. In Black Bear however, we go well beyond her trademark, one-note sardonic deadpan delivery into genuine acting. And act she does. She acts the heck out of it. In fact, no matter what you think of the movie in the end, it deserves to be seen for her brave and emotional performance. The others, especially Abbott, are good as well. It’s also worth noting that there were no extras in the film — all the background crew in the filmmaking portion of the story were actual crew.
I had some issues with the film itself, but overall, I liked it. My wife didn’t love it, which is fine. I’m sure it’s meant to be a polarizing film. It might also be a bit insy; I’ve worked on a number of film sets, so I knew what was happening and what was being satirized. That layer wasn’t there for my wife.
My biggest complaint though, is that Black Bear tells a few stories meant to illuminate the creative process, but they don’t necessarily come together cohesively in the end.
I looked up “Black Bear Ending Explained” after the film and stumbled upon some interviews where the filmmaker sort of implies that he doesn’t even know what it means. That’s a problem for me. I don’t need it tied up in a little bow and I’m fine if he doesn’t want to explain it, in the same way David Lynch refuses. But I believe that Lynch’s films do mean something to him. If the filmmaker doesn’t know what it means, then does it even mean anything?
I will never know whether I’m right or wrong about a Lynch film and that’s fine. But if it doesn’t actually mean anything, then my interpretation can’t be right or wrong, which for some reason, bothers me. I may be out to lunch or overthinking this. Maybe there’s a fascinating podcast conversation here. But that was how I felt when I found out that the film may not have a meaning to Devine himself — like the emperor had no clothes.
All that said, I don’t want to sound too negative here. I was very much into the film and interested to see where it was going to go. Overall, it was well written and compelling, even if it didn’t quite add up in the end. And I’m still thinking about it today, which I always say, is the mark of a good film.