As Aubrey Plaza’s Allison sits down to write in a luxurious cabin by a foggy lake, Black Bear introduces its first part, framed in a manner which suggests its events precede Allison putting pen to paper. It’s a film which pulls the rug out from under you more than once, more concerned with what is happening at any given moment than how it all comes together.

The less known about those structural mechanics before watching the better, but what the film is about – on the surface at least – is the dynamic between filmmaker Allison and her hosts Gabe and Blair. Their relationships sway from mildly dysfunctional to antagonistic, often with voices raised and seemingly hyperbolic accusations. Watching their constant feud is stressful, their aggression translating into a kind of anxiety for the viewer. Where is it all coming from, these endless and random tensions, and of what benefit is it to anyone?

Like Josephine Decker’s incredible Madeline’s Madeline, this is a film about the toxicities behind the creative process. In the name of taking a performance to the next level, the film examines the cruel treatment of actors abused by directors, convinced their emotional violence is honing their actor’s craft. Plaza puts herself through the ringer as a woman manipulated into a visceral and paranoid display of acting, losing control while those with the power play with her for more ‘realistic’ results.

Yet there’s a darkly playful and comedic edge to the film’s script which informs a larger farce. As a work of metafiction, the narrator may not be the villainous on-screen director. Black Bear is as much about the editing process while mining unpleasant emotions, trying out different versions of a narrative to see which fits best.

A puzzling and provocative piece of cinema, with a reliably exceptional performance from Plaza, Black Bear stands out from the pack.

RATING: 4/5


INFORMATION

CAST: Aubrey Plaza, Sarah Gadon, Christopher Abbott

DIRECTOR: Lawrence Michael Levine

WRITER: Lawrence Michael Levine

SYNOPSIS: An out-of-town filmmaker retreats to a remote cabin where she enters into tense relationships with her two hosts.