Sundance 2020: Black Bear

Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott appear in Black Bear by Lawrence Michael Levine, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Rob Leitzell.

Parks and Recreation actress Aubrey Plaza manages to go for a career-best performance in the Sundance-premiering Black Bear.

The lake house-set Black Bear takes us on a wild ride of twists and turns.  Don’t worry–the film does deliver on its title by making sure the animal shows up in both parts.  There’s no intermission but there is both a part one and part two.  By the time that the film finishes, you’re going to need a few minutes or more to let it sink in.  There’s something here that writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine is looking to say about the art of filmmaking.  It’s just that he manages to deliver on that message with a bit of a thriller.

There are two acts here.  The first is one in which a filmmaker (Aubrey Plaza) is looking for a place to draw inspiration.  She settles on a lake house owned by the friend of a friend.  Living with two other people–Blair (Sarah Gadon) and Gabe (Christopher Abbot)–leads to some fights as everyone gets to know each other.  Through the creative process, one of those fights manages to be re-enacted but the roles are reversed.

The film takes advantage of the lake house by also using as little sets as possible.  It’s a beautiful house that–no surprise–features a lot of bears in its decorations.  And yet, it’s also hard to imagine the film taking place in any other lake house.  The house is the perfect house for this film!  Well, aside from the fact that the house’s windows and a limited budget means mostly taking place at night.  The night scenes certainly manage to give the film a vibe that’s much different than if scenes took place during the daytime.

Stepping away from the film’s confusing plot for a moment (it does get a bit confusing at the end of the first part), Aubrey Plaza displays remarkable growth in terms of her range as an actress.  Most of us generally know the actress from comedies such as Parks and Recreation and Funny PeopleSafety Not Guaranteed was one of her first forays into dramedies and it’s become one of those movies that paid off for her career.  No matter what one thinks about the plot, Plaza is on command as an emotionally complex woman in Black Bear.

While Black Bear features a commanding performance from Plaza, it’s an independent film that might have trouble finding an audience.  In a changing cinema landscape, it’s almost certain that the film will find its audience on Digital/VOD.

DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER:  Lawrence Michael Levine
CAST:  Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon, Paola Lázaro, Grantham Coleman

Black Bear held its world premiere during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the NEXT program. Grade: 3.5/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.