Impressive, Admirable, Alarming & Frightening
Amongst the rising panic and ignored pleas of the 2023 SAG writers/actors strike lies a mist. As is the case with any other mist, you can’t see through it, you can’t see around it, and all predictions for the present and future, creative, political, or otherwise are put on the back burner where they will continue to reside long after the pot overboils.
Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear opens with such a mist. The mist is observed by Alison (Aubrey Plaza), a filmmaker and former actress who has traveled to the seclusion of the Adirondack mountains to seek inspiration for her next film. Plaza’s eyes are so centered as the opening shot shows her staring at the mist as she sits on a towel on a dock. The precision of the focus she anatomically projects is impressive and admirable but equally alarming and frightening. Allison is generally impressive, admirable, alarming, and frightening. She gets up from her towel, folds it slowly with care, and wraps it around her waist before walking back to her gorgeous cabin where she writes in her notebook and stares blankly at the page.
Black Bear then divides itself into two parts, each with the same three characters but a different story and set of circumstances. The first part sees Alison arriving at the cabin, an Airbnb owned by Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant wife Blair (Sarah Gadon). Their marriage is way past over but they’re not ending it due to Blair’s pregnancy which most likely wasn’t planned. Have you ever been the sole witness to a couple fighting and you want nothing more than to leave them be but you can’t? Plaza captures this experience with just the right mixture between discomfort and curiosity.
Any humorous thing she says is because she’s uncomfortable but equally because of her intelligence. She’s thinking about the long game. Maybe, this could serve as inspiration for her next film. What better way to manipulate her toxic hosts than to completely, unapologetically immerse herself around them? Allison is not someone who would do terrible things to strangers but rather insert herself into the orbit of people she THINKS she knows and have fun with whatever happens. As the night carries on, things DO grow more political, cringe-worthy, teeth-grinding in discomfort, and finally completely out of control with terrible consequences. It’s like Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, and Michelle Pfeiffer in Mother! But without all the violence.
In Allison’s defense, it’s all too easy to think you know Gabe and Blair. Allison is a very unique and special individual but what’s so frightening about Gabe and Blair (Which Abbot and Gadon execute FLAWLESSLY) is that they feel like real people. They represent a growing number of people (In America especially) who are opposites and who may or may not be the most outrageous of monsters out there but are completely removed from being in the same box as decent, reasonable enough, society-enriching beneficiary people.
Yes, I’m placing these people in boxes. Yes, society places people in boxes every single day based on multiple criteria and yes, there’s both an excruciatingly ignorant problematic danger and a helpful, necessary safety net in doing so. Allison understands the duality. Her hosts have none and thus are the perfect pawns in her little game. You never know for sure when or if anything Allison says is true. Allison is an enigma above all else. “You know, you’re hard to read,” Blair tells Allison over dinner. “Yeah, you know, I get that a lot.” She answers happily.
Gabe and Blair are much easier to read. He’s perhaps one of the worst kinds of conservatives, someone who has very leash-tightening views but because he’s not as outspoken as other right-wingers, he can get away with his expectations of receiving respect well past the point it can be reasonably granted. Blair is an extremely whiny liberal and very passive-aggressive in her initial side digs at Gabe until her pregnant rage is no longer self-maintainable. She’d be no different on social media than more than half of the people on it with her views. Social media is the WORST place for political statements and the cabin serves as a network for both their self-righteousness. She thinks so many people should be respected when she can’t even respect herself enough to have a backbone against Gabe. Always whining but never an end goal in sight. Content to run around this insufferable American hamster wheel forever and even worse, bring a child into it.
Gabe is no better. He is most reflective of Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson with some occasional traces of Ben Shapiro and Ron Desantis but mostly Peterson. Poised, calm, and collected, talks very eloquently, and therefore every ignorant thing he says, he can pass off as reasonable. Anyone who would get upset with him is seen as the crazy one because HE’S the one who is calm and reserved. People like Gabe act like this publicly and while I’m sure a great deal of this persona is lived out in private as well, Gabe eventually breaks along with Blair, and because it’s ONLY Allison whose a witness to their toxicities, he lets loose in ways he wouldn't if he were out in the world. It’s not because he doesn’t care what people would think of him but because he’s lazy. He’s too lazy for his persona which breaks much quicker than Blair’s.
Of course, he’s very passionate about traditional gender roles and insists that the decline of the “Traditional Family” perpetuates much of the climate change, racism, and sexism we see growing in our society. “How do we know women weren’t happier in the 1500s?” he asks. “I can tell you they fucking weren’t!” Blair shouts. Blair tries to swallow her rage as long as she can by consuming glasses of red wine much to Gabe’s chagrin. “The doctor said I can have a little.” She insists. “Fine,” Gabe says in defeat. “Don’t blame me when the baby comes out all fucked up.” As I said earlier, and even worse they are going to bring a child into this hornet's nest.
This is the kind of childishness they subject Allison to and what makes Black Bear so frightening and hilarious is that Allison is NOT uncomfortable for very long. She’s a filmmaker looking for inspiration. She’s not an opportunist. Just frighteningly and brilliantly observant. Much like Olivia Cooke in Thoroughbreds. Life makes for darkly humorous encounters and I would say Black Bear is more of a drama than a comedy. The comedy stems from the discomfort and claustrophobia of the character’s actions.
“You just want women to be fucking slaves!” Blair yells at Gabe. Allison who supplied herself with more wine by now can always be counted on to make outrageous sarcastic jokes in the most tense of moments. “Yeah, bitches be damned,” she says with her wine glass almost shaking in her hand. “I don’t think all women should be slaves but maybe I should be a slave. I think I’d be a great slave because I don't know what to do with myself half the time.”
I think it’s pretty clear to you all that things DO NOT improve from here on out. Plaza just has a stoic strangeness to her that got her so far in the comedy world because her natural strangeness is so equally empowering as it is hilarious and completely original. I don’t know anyone else who makes me laugh the WAY that she does. She’s an ambassador for those with DARK HUMOR. It’s finally serving her in drama as well.
Eventually, Part Two of Black Bear arrives and it takes place at the cabin during the day (Contrary to Part One where it gets dark rather quickly) in which Gabe is a director filming with his crew. This time, he’s married to Allison who’s the lead in his film and he’s having an affair with Blair who’s also acting in it. Alcohol is Allison's best friend but this time, it’s not used to her advantage because she’s NOT the one in control. The Allison of Part One was a very specific kind of feminist who embraced the messy imperfections of life and her ability to do so kept her at the top. Now, she’s the aggrieved wife who is always drunk and whispered about by everyone. Is this a different Allison or the same Allison in different circumstances? How much of who we are and how we’re seen in society stems from circumstance and how much stems from human nature? Of course, these are the questions that Black Bear never answers because there are none. These are the things best left to interpretation.
Allison is furious at Gabe and Blair who scheme to make their affair obvious to Allison hoping it will break her, thinking it will increase the brilliance of her work. It does. If Gabe and Blair were insufferable when they hated each other, you can only imagine what they’re like when they’re obsessed with each other. Allison can only take pleasure in holding things up and having people hold on tightly to her as she drunkenly makes her way down the stairs to the crew's presence, a suddenly nervous Blair and irritated Gabe.
The crew members are very much their characters. When people wonder what the negatives of working on a film crew are like, Black Bear should provide some accurate answers. There are many moments of humor of course but ultimately, there is this sadness that the atmosphere just CANNOT be helped because the three main plays can’t separate their private and professional lives. There IS so much humor though. If any of us were working in that crew, we would not find it funny. Allison lies in defeat on the floor of her dressing room with no bottoms on at all and Blair keeps having to change her outfit because everyone keeps spilling coffee on her by bumping into her. Pot is used as a stress reliever amongst the film crew and by the time Allison has to film a confrontation scene with Blair, she gives her a nosebleed.
Yet, Allison is never another version of Blair from Part One here. She is something else. Something else entirely. Whatever that is.
Black Bear ends right back where it started - With Allison looking into her notebook. We see she’s written the words “Black Bear” (The title meaning is suggested on two separate occasions, there’s no need for me to spoil it for you) and we see her look up and stare directly at us. Has she lived through the experiences we just witnessed or just thought about them? Well, she is a woman after all, there’s some truth to what our eyes bore but which Allison is the real one? Are all of them real? Are none of them real? Is she now hesitant in writing her film or is she thinking she can take the story further? Or is she unsure which of the two versions she wants to tell?
The mounting questions bring the blood in our brains to an overwhelmingly dizzying stage but the questions in it themselves manage to escape untethered, experiencing life and running free in its ambivalence. The people who surround Black Bear’s three crucial players are another matter entirely. The same cannot be said for them. The way this overdue strike is playing out (Disney CEO Bob Iger said just this week that writers and actors are not being realistic with their expectations and it’s very disturbing to HIM), the toxicity of the MPAA rating system, evergrowing censorship, the constant whining about who should and shouldn’t be allowed to tell what stories and the complete lack of opportunities for those who’ve never had their day in the sun all point towards a future that makes me feel as though my blood turned to hardened red ice and my skin is peeling away until bone is all that remain. If enough people don’t like the destination they’re heading towards, they’ll choose a different route. I just hope to god their cars are fast enough to get there.
“Black Bear.” IMDB, IMDB, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9601220/?ref_=tt_mv_close. Accessed 14 Aug. 2023.