There is indeed an actual, living, occasionally roaring black bear that appears in Lawrence Michael Levine’s razor-sharp “Black Bear,” but that’s one of the few hard-and-fast elements of the filmmaker’s nifty deconstruction of both the wider current culture and the microcosm of indie filmmaking. That the film — the first of Levine’s to premiere at Sundance — is programmed in the festival’s forward-thinking NEXT section should suggest to audiences that the film is more than the psychosexual drama hinted at in its official description. Well, it is, but it’s also so much more.
The basics: set in the kind of glamorous mountain mansion that never seems like anyone’s actual home, we’re first introduced to flinty filmmaker Allison (Aubrey Plaza), who is visiting the makeshift artist retreat on the recommendation of a pal. It’s run by — and owned by and lived in — flirty Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant partner Blair (Sarah Gadon), who are amusingly ill suited for any kind of professional endeavor (and also, maybe each other). From the start, the trio makes for an engaging set-up, as battle lines and alliances are drawn and re-plotted over the course of one off-kilter day and a particularly boozy night.
For fans of Levine’s wife Sophia Takal’s work, this may feel familiar (the film is, after all, dedicated to the “Black Christmas” filmmaker and the duo have long worked together over the course of their careers), though with a wickedly dark comedic spin. Fans of Takal’s revelatory “Always Shine” will vibe to what Levine’s throwing down, as Allison and Blair spar and snip (and occasionally agree with each other), ostensibly in a low-simmering competition for Gabe’s affections. As Levine unravels clever jabs and jibes at current culture — few recent features have so smartly picked apart both feminism and caveman culture with such insight and humor — tenuous bonds break down.
Levine is gifted with three wonderfully game performers in Abbott, Plaza, and Gadon, who are already impressive, but then Levine throws in a narrative and structural twist that allows them to even further expand. To say much more about the script-flipping that happens halfway through the film would be to rob audiences of a real pleasure, but it’s a story-expanding trick that allows the film, its big ideas, and its performers to dig even deeper.
The first half of the film is capped off by an immaculately plotted face-off between the trio — Plaza steals the show, though Abbott and Gadon are stellar foils — that’s echoed again and again in its second act. “Black Bear” bends back and forth on itself, self-reflexive and jittery, trusting in its audience to follow along on its twisted and twisting path. New characters and new dimensions emerge, as the film takes on a meta cast that should delight anyone who has any idea of how a film set works.
Perhaps it’s that inherent trust that makes “Black Bear” such a rare treat, as Levine doesn’t offer easy, quick answers to many of its questions, instead leaning into the film’s unique vibe and full-force performances to sell a mood and a tone over all else. Levine’s structure, sold with handwritten title pages that approximate Allison’s own scribblings (or does it?), seems to eventually beg for something more traditional, a concept the filmmaker eschews in favor of diving deeper into a segment that operates as both middle and final act. The film grows both somehow more feverish and believable with each twist and turn, a roaring good time that can’t even be overshadowed by the actual beast creeping around outside.
“Black Bear” premiered in the NEXT section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.