Black Bear: Film Review

Black Bear

Black Bear stars three actors I think are terrific – Aubrey Plaza, Sarah Gadon, and Christopher Abbott – and I went in with high expectations and came away impressed but confused.

This mind-bending drama is told in two parts. In the first chapter, Plaza plays Allison, an actress-turned-filmmaker who goes to a rural retreat hoping to find some inspiration and get her creative juices flowing for her next project. She is the only guest at the lakeside house so is entertained by the owner Gabe (Abbott) and his pregnant partner Blair (Gadon) and a wild drunken night ensues, with Blair accusing Gabe of being attracted to Allison. In part two, their names are the same but their roles have changed – Gabe is now a director and married to Allison, the star of the movie they are shooting at the house. Blair is another actress and Allison is convinced Blair is sleeping with her husband, which makes for more chaos.

To be honest, I don’t think I really understood the film; what was real, what was not, and which version of the trio was the true one. It was confusing and it left me thinking about it for ages after the credits rolled as I kept trying to make sense of it before I finally gave up. Usually, not understanding a film means I don’t enjoy it, so it’s a testament to writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine for making it so compelling and exciting to watch. I loved what I was watching, even though I couldn’t figure out how the two parts fit together. It was far too ambiguous, something which usually drives me nuts.

The film’s biggest strength is the performances. Plaza has been nailing dramatic parts for some time now but she goes above and beyond what we’ve seen her do before here. She gives a stunning powerhouse performance that requires so much emotion and internal rage. She is unbelievably good, particularly in the second half when her character has to act out a scene that hits close to home and she drinks to get through it. Allison runs the gamut of feelings in this chapter – she’s insecure, angry, rude, obnoxious, upset, and vulnerable, to name a few. Plaza gives her all in those scenes and seals the deal on this being her career-best performance.

All three leads have to play two different characters in this film and they pull it off with ease. There is no weak link; they all ace it. Abbott also excels in the second half as the frustrated director trying to get the best out of his lead, even if that means playing mind games to get her into a bad headspace. Gadon comes into her own in the first half as she has a lot of dialogue to sink her teeth into and dominates their drunken conversation about feminism and traditional gender roles.

I connected with the second half a bit more simply because I love watching films about filmmaking so watching all the chaos of getting a scene ready, particularly when an actor is drunk, and then shooting it, was fascinating to me. But that’s not to say I disliked the first half. I was engaged the whole way through and I found the character dynamics intriguing and wanted to know more about them. I also want to give Levine kudos because I think his screenplay was terrific across the board.

Black Bear probably won’t do it for everybody because it’s so puzzling and I would usually be in that boat too, but on this rare occasion, the writing and the performances are so good that they make up for the ambiguity.

On digital platforms from Friday 23rd April

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Happiest Season: Film Review

Happiest Season

Feeling in the mood for a fun, lovely, delightful Christmas movie? Then look no further than Happiest Season.

Clea DuVall‘s film stars Kristen Stewart as Abby and Mackenzie Davis as her girlfriend Harper, who invites her home for the holidays for the first time. What seems like a big step in their relationship is soon crushed with the revelation that Harper is still in the closet and she needs them to pretend to be straight roommates during the five-day visit.

This is the first major studio-backed same-sex festive film, as Christmas movies are largely dominated by white straight characters. It shouldn’t be such a historic, pivotal moment for representation in 2020 but it is – and what makes it even more exciting is that it is a traditional, conventional romcom – it has all the hallmarks of ‘meet the parents’ and ‘going home for the holidays’ films – but it just happens to star a lesbian couple.

Romantic comedy is a genre I’ve always embraced but the heyday of quality ones seems to have been and gone. Happiest Season gives me hope because it’s well-written, there are great characters and relationships, and the ensemble cast is terrific. However, it does suffer from the chronic romcom issue of being predictable, but that’s fine because we came here for warm fuzzy festive feelings. Also, there weren’t enough laugh-out-loud moments. It was always entertaining, captivating, and amusing (and occasionally moving) but I really wanted a hearty laugh and didn’t get that. It’s also tied up a bit too neatly at the end but I can forgive that too.

The cast is the film’s biggest strength. I love Stewart in absolutely everything so me enjoying her performance here is a given, but she brought great warmth and heart to the role and I liked seeing her in this type of film. She had convincing chemistry with Davis, an actress I adore.

The stars of the show are in the supporting cast though – first up is Dan Levy as Abby’s gay best friend John. He was fabulous, so much fun, made me smile the most, and has the most moving moment in the movie – his monologue is powerful and I imagine gay viewers will relate to it very well. Secondly, I loved Aubrey Plaza as Riley, who has a history with Harper. She’s a lifeline for Abby when she’s in need of normality outside of the highly-strung, perfectionist family and I liked that friendship. Then there’s Mary Holland, who co-wrote the movie with DuVall. She shines as the oddball weirdo Jane, who just wants to be noticed as the constantly overlooked middle child. The ensemble cast is rounded out by Alison Brie as the bitchy sister Sloane (we’ve seen Brie in this role before), and Mary Steenburgen and Victor Garber as Harper’s parents.

Happiest Season isn’t perfect but it gave me pretty much what I wanted from a festive romcom this year. It’s an absolute delight and I’ll happily watch it again.

Released on digital platforms such as Amazon Prime and iTunes on Thursday 26th November. Available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from 18 December.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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