Black Bear is the latest work from independent filmmaker Lawrence Michael Levine, who also wrote and directed Wild Canaries (2014), which co-starred Levine and his real-life partner Sophia Takal, as well as Alia Shawkat and Jason Ritter. Levine also wrote Always Shine (2016), which was directed by Takal and starred Mackenzie Davis, Caitlin FitzGerald and Jane Adams. Levine, Takal and Kate Lyn Sheil also starred in Green (2011), which was written and directed by Takal. Sheil and Adams are the stars of She Dies Tomorrow directed by Amy Seimetz, which was released earlier this year. Levine and Takal are clearly at the centre of a thriving American indie scene, which is encouraging.
The reason I mention Green, Always Shine (and to a lesser extent, Wild Canaries) is because there is a strong through-line in themes and concerns from Levine and Takal’s previous works to Black Bear. Like Green, Black Bear centres around two women and one man, and examines how the man is pulled in two directions by these two different women. In Black Bear, Aubrey Plaza plays Alison, Christopher Abbott plays Gabe and Sarah Gadon plays Blair. It is really two short films set in the same location – in the first, The Bear in the Road, Alison is a writer-director who has come to a cabin by a lake owned by musician Gabe and his partner Blair (a former dancer who is pregnant), as a retreat, to work on her film. In the second, The Bear by the Boat House, Gabe is a director making a film starring his wife Alison at the cabin and Blair is an actress who is also in the film.
Black Bear is the kind of film that will have many different interpretations. To me, it’s the continuation of the theme of the duality of being a woman (both Levine and Takal seem more interested in examining women than men) and how the two sides of the psyche can wrestle for control. In Always Shine, the two central women (played by Davis and FitzGerald) kind of swap roles in the second half of the film (although this is not 100% set in stone). Patricia Rozema’s Mouthpiece is another (recommended) recent film that has examined the duality of women, where two actresses play the struggling and opposing forces within one woman. In both halves of Black Bear, Blair is the more steady, calm and sensible character and Alison is more flighty, unpredictable and exciting. Crucially though, how Gabe relates and reacts to these two characters is very different in the two halves.
The first half has one of the most excruciatingly awkward dinner parties I’ve ever witnessed (and I’ve seen all of Joanna Hogg’s films), with Gabe and Blair seemingly out to prove who can be the most passive aggressive to the other one. Clearly, there is some tension in the relationship. Alison has many qualities of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – she’s kooky, unconventional, she lies, she’s provocative and sexy. Gabe is obviously drawn to this breath of fresh air. The second half is very much an examination of what happens when you marry the MPDG and we see what happens in the relationship six years down the line. The novelty has worn off and Alison is now in the role of a difficult-to-handle actress – she’s insecure and paranoid, overly sensitive and emotional, she drinks in order to cope. Gabe takes advantage of this and manipulates his wife in order to elicit a good performance from her, whilst being drawn to the much easier, stable and relaxed Blair.
The three central actors are all incredible and it’s because of them that the film works as well as it does. All three characters (or should I say six?) are at times, infuriating and at other times, elicit our sympathies. Abbott is having a banner year, between this and Possessor, it is hoped that he will be taken more seriously as an actor now. But it is Plaza who is the real star – going from annoyingly perky and quirky in the first half, to clearly being exhausted and drained from her anxieties and emotions in the second. Despite this, the second half, which takes place on a film-set is very funny – there are mishaps involving spilled coffee, food poisoning and high crew-members which makes it tonally quite different from the first half, which at times even veers into horror. Levine treads this difficult balancing act delicately and mostly successfully – Black Bear is difficult to pin down or even describe, but this is very much a positive in my book.
Black Bear is a complicated examination of a contemporary woman and how men can pull them apart for the pieces they desire and violently reject the facets they find unpalatable. The very qualities that make someone attractive, appealing and exciting to begin with, are the same things that quickly lose their charm – getting smaller and dimmer, having their edges worn down and their sheen polished away. Levine does not offer easy answers or a magic cure-all for relationships – they evolve and develop and people must adapt to accommodate one another as you get older. Or you could just move onto the next new shiny thing, of course…
Black Bear will be released on 4 December 2020.