“Black Bear” is one of those hipster indie films that starts off with a bang but is quickly overshadowed by its own attempts at cleverness. This tangled puzzle of a movie meticulously lays out all the pieces, but writer / director Lawrence Michael Levine can’t seem to decide how he wants to fit them together and lazily falls back on a fade-to-black ending that’s open to interpretation.
Set at a remote lake house in the Adirondack Mountains, the narrative is told in two chapters. In Chapter One, a filmmaker with writer’s block named Allison (Aubrey Plaza) is seeking inspiration and rents a room from bickering couple Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon). The passive-aggressive pair disagree about everything, and Allison tries her best to appease both sides, even if it means fibbing the answers to a couple of personal questions. After an awkward dinner that’s full of lies and manipulation, Blair’s excessive jealousy causes her husband to give in to temptation and drives him into the bed of their house guest.
Chapter Two features the same actors playing slightly different characters. In this storyline, a film director (Abbott) manipulates his actors (Gadon and Plaza) on the chaotic last day of shooting. The man resorts to cruel mental abuse in pursuit of artistic perfection, which is as upsetting as it is provocative.
As the fictional film’s lead, Plaza does some terrific work as a completely unhinged actor who becomes convinced that her husband is cheating on her with her co-star. She comes close to the ledge with her hysterical crying and screaming, but manages to deliver a performance that never feels forced or exaggerated.
Chapter One is the strongest of the film’s two sections, with a story that is so good that its abrupt ending is very frustrating. It also makes Chapter Two feel like more of a letdown almost instantly. The film-within-a-film gimmick is way too “indie insider,” with too many winks and nods to those working in the industry. It’s annoying (and a little ironic) that a story with the intent to poke the sleeping bear of self-indulgence that runs amok among creative types is also self-indulgent.
Fiction and reality are blurred in “Black Bear,” and the film’s themes touch on the complexity of relationships, gender roles, the deconstruction of the creative process, and the willingness to destroy lives if it means achieving artistic perfection. Levine repeats these points ad nauseum, continuously beating down that door until it’s taken too far. The smug ending left me aggravated, questioning whether this whole thing was a complete waste of my time.