Set in a remote B&B on a beautiful lake in Upstate New York run by semi-pro musician Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant, former dancer wife Blair (Sarah Gadon), are the Bickersons by way of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” No comment from either of them goes unanswered by a barb or withering look. “It’s not that I can’t stand that you have thoughts about the world,” Blair says to Gabe in one heated exchange. “It’s that I can’t stand the thoughts about the world you have.”
Into this insular situation comes Allison (Aubrey Plaza), an actress-turned-filmmaker who booked a weekend away hoping to find inspiration in nature for her next movie. “I’m waiting for something meaningful to happen to me,” she says. Instead, she becomes entwined in the personal lives of her hosts. Secrets are shared, recriminations fly and hostilities arise.
The talky first half, with a long, drunken discussion about traditional gender roles, leads into Part Two: The Bear by the Boat House, a surreal jump to the filming of the movie-within-the-movie. Without giving anything of substance away, Gabe is now the film’s egomaniacal director while Blair is now Allison’s co-star in a tortured indie film that seems to be taking its cues from the real-life retreat. Themes of the creative process, temptation and the pain of toxic relationships introduced in the first half are further reflected in part two.
“Black Bear” is an audacious movie that defies categorization. It’s playing in select theatres, wherever theatres are open, but I suspect it will mostly be seen on VOD. That’s a shame because the layered story is not something you can digest casually while thumbing through Twitter or eating a sandwich. The personal dynamics on display are filled with conflict and every line is a trigger that sets the next into motion.
The performances bring the difficult material to life. Abbott and Gadon are very good, but it is Plaza whose work leaves a mark. She brings a furious intensity to Allison that will blow the hair back on anyone only familiar with her work as the darkly disinterested April Ludgate on the sitcom “Parks and Recreation.” It’s a complex and challenging performance that is bracingly and simultaneously real and surreal.
“Black Bear” will confound viewers looking for easy answers and a neatly tied up bow at the end. Like the creative process it portrays, it is unknowable in its entirety, a deliberate cypher meant to engage both your head and your heart.