’Tis the season of great Aubrey Plaza performances, apparently. The “Parks and Recreation” and “Legion” alum has been long overdue for a breakout film role, something fitting of her wide-ranging talent and more imaginative than just relying on her quirky deadpan and eye rolls.
She’s been excellent before as a motivated teen in “The To Do List” and an empathetic social media stalker in “Ingrid Goes West” but the bigger studio comedies have largely failed her. Something finally clicked into place, though, and she has proven that she is on another level. And no, I’m not just talking about her effortlessly cool “Happiest Season” character, a side-player who became a social media favorite simply by existing.
The movie is “ Black Bear,” a meta thriller about moviemaking, creativity and ego from writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine that debuted earlier this year at Sundance and is the kind of indie that can so easily get lost just because it is never going to be an Oscar contender. It also has the misfortune of being enormously tricky to describe coherently or satisfyingly: It essentially becomes a different movie halfway through. But even though it is purposefully disorienting and occasionally a little too heightened, it is never not interesting and keeps you rapt with its captivating performances, revealing dialogue and moody, lo-fi style.
In the first section, Plaza plays Allison, an actor turned filmmaker who has decided to escape to a bed and breakfast in the woods on a lake to work on her next screenplay. Her movies, she says, are the small, unsuccessful ones that no one likes. And she quit acting because she was difficult or not pretty enough or, more likely, some other reason she would rather not admit to herself much less a stranger whose property she’s renting.
The cabin is maintained by a young, pretty couple Gabe (Christopher Abbott), a musician, and Blair (Sarah Gadon), a dancer, who are expecting their first child. Their struggling artist life in Brooklyn was too expensive and unsuccessful to continue and they’re trying on the rustic life for a change. Although, like an unhappy couple who have been isolated for too long, the cracks are starting to show.
The first act unravels like a play. The three have a long, wine-fueled dinner talking, bickering and provoking one another to the breaking point and beyond. Allison is sarcastic, evasive and quippy and finds herself allying with Gabe much to the distress of the much more direct and sincere Blair. Gabe is a very particular kind of millennial male whose artistic temperament, dismissive intellect and sensitive posturing make for a toxic combination — a theme which carries over into the second part of the film to explosive results. It’s cringey and enthralling as the three dig themselves into deeper and deeper holes and you begin to wish for any kind of release.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason why “Black Bear” cuts to black and restarts with a different premise but similar themes. Gadon and Abbott are darkly excellent as they playfully skewer the worst kind of egos in their industry. And it’s here where Plaza, as actor Allison, gets some real showstopper moments within the stereotypical construct of a desperately insecure, jealous and dangerously method female lead. It’s reminiscent of and probably inspired by Gena Rowlands and puts Plaza in a different class.
The film itself might not wrap up in any sort of tidy or satisfying way, but nothing leading up to the conclusion would lead you to expect something so basic.
“Black Bear,” a Momentum Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “for language throughout, sexual content, drug use and some nudity.” Running time: 104 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.