Aubrey Plaza Is Exceptional in Unnerving Psychological Drama ‘Black Bear’

Aubrey Plaza has been lauded as a comedic talent for over a decade. Now she is showing a different side of herself in Black Bear.” This intellectual and surreal drama finds Plaza playing two versions of a woman named Allison in two different stories, both set in an isolated location and connected by a large, dark animal.

Both halves of “Black Bear” are set in a remote lake house in the Adirondack Mountains in northeastern New York. In the first half, Allison is a former actress-turned-filmmaker who has rented a room in some friends of a friend’s cabin, ostensibly so she can get some writing done, although she may have actually left her husband. Unfortunately for her, she has fled one bad marriage only to step into another one. The couple whom she is staying with, Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon), are also creatives, but unlike Allison, neither of them have experienced much financial success, at least in recent years, which has led them to flee the city for this lake house that Gabe inherited ahead of the birth of their first child.

What transpires next is a chamber drama in which Allison is forced to sit through an awkward dinner during which the cracks in Gabe and Blair’s marriage are visible. At first, Allison is the kind of cool and sardonic character Plaza is known for playing, but her attempts to break the tension with humor end up only adding fuel to the fire. An abundance of wine doesn’t help the situation, and it’s quite a trip for Allison and the viewer to see things unravel so rapidly. Blair expects her to take her side against Gabe in a heated debate about gender roles, but Allison continues to joke around, leaving poor Blair to simmer as she picks up on the sexual attraction between her and her husband. All this leads to a nightmarish climax.

While Gabe behaves appallingly in the first half, in the second half he becomes a master-level manipulator as a director who uses what can be best be described as psychological torture in order to get an emotional performance out of his lead actress, his wife, Allison. Here, Blair is now the “other woman,” as she and Gabe pretend to be engaging in a sexual affair in order to manipulate Allison. Gabe is directing the two women and a third actor, Mike (Alexander Koch), in a scene that plays out like the end of the dinner scene in the first half. Plaza is like we’ve never seen her before, vulnerable and paranoid, as Gabe pushes Allison to her breaking point. 

The second half is an absolute trainwreck (in a good way), and writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine has fun bringing to life the chaotic nature of set life, from the script supervisor who gets a nasty case of food poisoning, to the crew members getting high, sneaking off to have sex with each other, and repeatedly spilling coffee on Blair. However, the film is not being shot on a studio lot, but in a remote location in the middle of nowhere, and its director is a #MeToo violation waiting to happen, all things that heighten the sense of danger.

In both halves, Levine does a fine job with escalation, building tension, and bringing out solid performances from his actors. As for the titular bear, who shows up at the end of both stories, its meaning will surely be debated by viewers. All in all, “Black Bear” is a fascinating glimpse into the artistic process. In both stories, one character appears to manipulate things, while another is revealed to be the true author of things in a frame story.

Black Bear” releases Dec. 4 on VOD and in select cities.