Saturday, January 25, 2020

Sundance with Abe: Black Bear

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the seventh time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can, as well as video reviews uploaded to YouTube.

Black Bear
Directed by Lawrence Michael Levine

Any movie that begins with a few people spending a night in an isolated home in the woods is likely to spell doom - or, at least, sustained misery - for those poor characters. Not all such films are created equal, however, and some don’t result in full-fledged horror or gore. It’s perhaps a greater challenge to build suspense and a vivid, engaging narrative when the only real threats to anyone’s livelihood are their own self-destructive inclinations.

Filmmaker Allison (Aubrey Plaza) arrives at a home in the Adirondacks, where she is greeted by Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant girlfriend Blair (Sarah Gadon). Their shared dinner finds Gabe and Blair at each other’s throats, bickering and disagreeing while Allison watches and contributes minimally, keeping her identity guarded. As tensions rise, relationships are put to the test and these three have an opportunity to experience the night and their new dynamic in a wholly unexpected way.

This film competes in the NEXT category at Sundance, a fitting classification since its genre is difficult to assign. It’s clear that there is something amiss as soon as Allison shows up at her country getaway, but introductory titles about bears in the road and rustling sounds in the trees are red herrings. This is a thriller about people coming undone when left to their own devices, able to pick each other apart and fall prey to predictable impulses that cannot be reversed. It’s best compared to “Always Shine,” a film in which director Lawrence Michael Levine actually appeared in as an actor, though this film’s handling of its mind-bending journey is far superior.

What makes this film work best is the excellent cast. Plaza is often purposefully over-the-top, in projects like “Parks and Recreation” and “Legion,” and her more reserved demeanor works very well here, especially when she begins to unravel. Abbott was a formidable villain in “Sweet Virginia,” but this role marks a return to the kind of character he played on “Girls,” where his words and condescending attitude are most vicious. Gadon, who has impressed in projects like “11.22.63,” plays off both of them excellently, demonstrating her true talent. This film almost needs no plot once it allows its actors to start conversing. Yet its eagerness and commitment to stick with its characters is what makes it so fantastically unsettling, impossible to ignore while it’s happening and difficult to shake once it’s over.


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