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[Nightstream] ‘Black Bear’ review: Emotionally charged film blurs line between art and reality

Art imitates life or vice versa?

Black Bear blurs the line between art and reality in a way many stories have attempted. Few have been as successful as this recent entry at the Nightstream Film Festival. An intimate film starring Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, and Sarah Gadon, the movie is about a film director searching for inspiration. A beautiful cabin in the woods seems to be the answer but ends up being the location for conflicts.

The three leads are given multiple moments to stand out. The performances in the movie are very powerful. Black Bear is as much a story about conflict as it is about art. (Or maybe, about how the two feed off each other.) There is little time for levity and each actor does an incredible job of showcasing anger, frustration, desires and sadness.

Black Bear is a very tense movie. The tightness begins with the initial meeting between Plaza and Abbott. From there, things spiral out of control and lead to a painfully awkward dinner. The second half of the movie sees some role reversal that also leads to some anxious situations.

There are a number of powerful monologues over the course of the film. Each is a great moment that makes outstanding use of all the characters. The audience also feels like the people in Black Bear. There is fear, anxiety, and even some humor. Each instance leaves the audience shocked with the raw emotion and is riveting.

As strong as these moments are, they also highlight one of the film’s issues. Black Bear is split into two parts. (Another way the movie subverts audience expectations is to callously toss aside the three act structure.) Part one is a tight story that will keep audiences in shocked amazement the entire time. Part two is a little different.

The segment is just as powerful and emotional but it also begins to feel long. There are a lot of moving parts here – including vastly increasing the size of the cast  – and it starts to feel a little too chaotic. That may have been the feeling writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine was going for, but it also takes away from the personal drama that was built so well in the previous segment.

Which is not to say Black Bear pushes its three leads to the background. They still take center stage in some spirited scenes that will hold the gaze of anyone watching. The difference is there are so many questions about the other characters that ultimately do not matter. The tonal change from borderline slapstick comedy to ultra meta storytelling is smoothly done but emotionally exhausting for the audience.

When taken all together, it is a very clever movie. There are definitely moments when it feels like the script is more about pleasing itself than the audience, but this never hurts the viewing experience. Black Bear looks at the tenuous line between art and reality and delivers a painfully enjoyable experience.

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