Aubrey Plaza has long been an underrated actress. Long a supporting weapon in comedies, Plaza has aced bigger roles when asked. Just look at her under-appreciate turn in The To-Do List, as well as a recent acclaimed performance in the dramedy Ingrid Goes West. The more you ask of her, the more she delivers. So, anyone wondering what Plaza would be capable of in a full on drama is in luck. Black Bear is a challenging film that probably wouldn’t work without her. Yes, she’s that good here. Independent cinema like this, which follows the beat of its own drummer, often needs a performance to reel you in. Plaza delivers that in spades.
Black Bear is the sort of movie that doesn’t ever make it easy for you. Taking on no less a topic than the creative process itself, it’s a sly deconstruction that keeps you on your toes. Does it all work? No. Are you consistently waiting for the other shoe to drop? Yes. The film has pacing issues and a tone that jumps around a bit too much, but the concept itself, as well as the acting on display, make up for it.
Plaza is sure having a moment. In addition to this flick, last week saw the release of Happiest Season, where her key supporting role steals the show (as seen in our rave review here). The one-two punch of Black Bear and Happiest Season makes it a 2020 to remember for the actress. Redefining how some look at her, it’s a clear indication that the best is surely yet to come, and that’s exciting.
Initially, we meet Allison (Plaza) as she arrives at the cabin of Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon). A former actress, Allison is now an indie filmmaker, renting a room from the couple while trying to work on a new project. Quickly, it becomes apparent that she’s constantly lying to the pair, sometimes for no reason, though sometimes to generate dramatic responses. The longer the day progresses, and especially into an alcohol-fueled night, the more a wedge begins to be driven between Blair and Gabe. Suddenly, things take a turn for the melodramatic, before winding up in tragedy. It almost feels like the movie is over, though it’s only at the midway point.
Then, the narrative changes completely. Now, Allison is the star of a film being made with a similar plot, one being directed by her husband Gabe, who is torturing her psychologically, alongside co-star Blair, in order to get a better performance. As Allison breaks down, things go both according to and different from what we saw in the first section.
Aubrey Plaza has never been better, stretching like she never has before. She digs down deep to find almost infinite layers to her character (characters?). Plaza truly impresses, whether it’s weaving a web of deceit or having first rate breakdowns. To be sure, Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon have incredibly challenging roles that they ace, too. Plaza just leaves the bigger impression. Abbott, Gadon, and Plaza do the bulk of the work here, and any sequence featuring all three is like its own mini production. In the first half, it’s drama with a capital D. The back end has it too, but it’s tinged with the knowledge that more is going on here than meets the eye.
Filmmaker Lawrence Michael Levine pulls off something pretty tricky here. Resetting his narrative halfway through, this becomes a far more meta production. Instead of being about a filmmaker, it’s about a film within a film, or at least the making of one. The first section suffers a bit from initial confusion, though the second half really comes alive once you realize what’s going on. Levine doesn’t fully stick the landing, but it’s overall a successful endeavor, anchored by his cast.
Black Bear won’t be for everyone. That sort of goes without saying. However, as long as you’re willing to go with where it wants to lead you, Aubrey Plaza is more than enough fuel to take you there. Her work is top tier acting, showing sides of her we’ve never seen before. I know I hope Plaza doesn’t abandon comedy, but this is proof that she needs to be in more dramas, too. She’s got the goods, plain and simple.