Black Bear - B+
Rated R, 104 minutes
The dark, well-acted new psychological drama "Black Bear" is a fascinating look at indie filmmaking and the games people play to make them. Directed and written by Lawrence Michael Levin, it's a twisty, occasionally talky thriller that starts off slow and becomes far more engaging in its second half.
At a remote lake house in the Adirondack Mountains, a couple ("True Detective's" Sarah Gadon and "Catch-22's" Christopher Abbott) entertains an out-of-town guest, an actress named Allison (Aubrey Plaza of "Child's Play") looking for inspiration in her filmmaking. The group quickly falls into a calculated game of desire, manipulation, and jealousy, unaware of how dangerously convoluted their lives will soon become in the filmmaker’s pursuit of a work of art, which blurs the boundaries between autobiography and invention.
"Black Bear" is a compelling, unconventional behind-the-scenes portrait from writer/director Levine, in his third film, film with symbolism and metaphors about human life that isn't always optimistic. It wouldn't be near as good without the stunning lead performance from the usually comedic Plaza (yes, she's also the one from "Parks and Recreation"), who shows off her formidable dramatic talents in a dark, mesmerizing performance that evokes Elizabeth Taylor's deeply unsettled Martha from the classic "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," if Martha were a manipulative, shrewd contemporary actress wrecking havoc on a movie set.
That said, Plaza's Allison and Taylor's Martha have more in common than you might think, and Allison skillfully controls those around her, blurring the lines between art and real life, which is likely Allison's intentions. The slow, talky first act of "Black Bear" is its weakest, until it livens up with a much better second half, where Plaza comes alive. She's strongly aided by Abbott and Gadon as her cinematic colleagues, as well as a memorable behind-the-scenes crew, namely a scene-stealing Paolo Lazaro of "The Walking Dead" as a PA with some ill-timed stomach issues.
Dark, funny, powerful and often messy, you won't be able to look away from "Black Bear," namely due to Plaza's skillfully crafted, award-worthy turn as a very troubled, difficult artist with far more up her sleeve than you might think. It's not an easily accessible film and sometimes leaves you scratching your head, but then many good psychological films do. Even with some of its flaws, Plaza's astonishing turn makes "Black Bear" (a metaphor for the troubled film's fictional indie production) worth your time.