A female filmmaker seeking a cure for writer’s block retreats to a rural getaway only to land in the middle of a modern-day retelling of marital dysfunction drama ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ The wickedly incisive ‘Black Bear’ is a three-hander told in two distinct parts: one, a cutting, psychosexual melodrama; the other, a farcical behind-the-scenes look at filmmaking. It’s a conceit made even more meta by director Lawrence Michael Levine seemingly basing his lead character on his actual wife, filmmaker Sophia Takal. But ‘Black Bear’ is more than just a self-referential piece; it’s brimming with razor-sharp dialogue and engaging characters.
When Allison (Aubrey Plaza) arrives at this film’s cabin in the woods, the horror emanates from the fractious dynamic between the young couple occupying the home, Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon). During a welcome dinner, their questions about Allison and her career are paired with nasty jabs at one another. Blair asks Allison about her films and belittles Gabe’s guitarist past; Gabe pours Allison a glass of wine and tells Blair that she’s had enough to drink. Levine’s script deftly bounces between pointed, hurtful remarks and a very millennial unpacking of gender roles that’s as clever as it is knowing. From there, the tension rachets up towards a crescendo filled with awkward truths.
The three central cast members deliver top-notch performances (Abbott is especially good as the increasingly smug Gabe), but it’s Plaza who runs away with the movie. Replacing the knowing hauteur of her most famous roles with a mysterious, alluring energy, she soon starts unravelling in a swirl of booze and emotions. It feels like a role written for her – and sure enough, it is – and Plaza runs with it to produce her most finely tuned performance to date. ‘Black Bear’ explores the cumulative effects of emotional abuse, offering a twist-filled dissection of contemporary anxieties that will keep audiences guessing right to the end.