Lawrence Michael Levine is a part of the second generation of mumblecore filmmakers. Mumblecore is a “genre” of film in a way, but more so was a group of filmmakers that came up in the early 2000’s. They were all popping up independently of each other at various film fests across the country and had similar themes and styles of how they were making their films. A lot of this had to do with them being inspired by the independent film boom of the 90’s and also the fact that equipment to make films, such as digital cameras and editing programs, were becoming more accessible and affordable. It was almost kind of like a phenomenon that they all had similar themes and ways that they were making their films. They would grab some friends and dissect the intricacies of their relationships with each other, whether it be a sexual relationship or a platonic one. They were also all indie, slacker types, and because of the way the dialog was spoken in the films—often improvised—it came off as mumbling, hence the term “mumblcore”, which was dubbed that style by sound recordist, Eric Musunaga, who had worked on a number of films with the mumblecore master, Andrew Bujalski. Through meeting at these festivals, a bunch of them became friends and started acting, writing, producing, and directing each other in each other’s films. It was definitely a “scene” in a way, similar to the Nouvelle Vague that came out of France. Filmmakers like Greta Gerwig, who wrote and directed the most recent adaptation of ‘Little Women’ came out of this first generation of mumblcore filmmakers. As did Sophia Takal, who co-wrote and directed the most recent adaptation of ‘Black Christmas’, but she is what I consider to be a part of the second generation of mumblecore filmmakers, filmmakers that have ties to the first generation, and were making films in a similar vein and fashion. I mention all of this not only provide some context to ‘Black Bear’, but it also ties directly into the emotional core of the film, as Sophia Takal is also married to the writer / director of ‘Black Bear’, Lawrence Michael Levine.
Levine and Takal have been collaborating on each other’s projects pretty much since the beginning. She acted in his breakthrough feature ‘Gabi on the Roof in July’ and he acted in her debut feature ‘Green’. Now pay attention to this film ‘Green’ here, as it seems to be a key element in understanding the layers of ‘Black Bear’, which will turn out to be a dissection of filmmakers and filmmaking.
‘Black Bear’ is broken down into two half’s. The first half is some of the most well crafted cinema to have entered the stratosphere this year. This first part is about a relationship between two people and what happens when a third person enters that dimension. And though it is about the dynamics of a relationship, it plays out like a thriller, except no knives or guns are involved. This isn’t a ‘Fatal Attraction’-esque erotic thriller. It plays more like Takal’s first film ‘Green’. Which is kind of a clue in a way if you have seen Takal’s first film, it’s a clue into what this movie ‘Black Bear’ is about.
Just when things really seem to be heating up in this first half, it abruptly ends, and the second part begins, divided by another chapter heading that’s designed like the loose leaf paper that Allison (Aubrey Plaza) is writing in. In the first part of the story, she plays an out of work actor that has turned into a writer / director, who got recommended from a friend to do a writing retreat at this cabin in the woods that Gabe (Christopher Abbot) and Blair (Sarah Gadon) have inherited from Gabe’s family. Gabe and Blair are a couple that live at the cabin and have a baby on the way, but they opened up the spacious cabin to share with artists that are looking for a brief getaway. But in the second part of the story, things get shifted and reversed. SPOILERS AHEAD. We are shown the same opening footage of the film of Allison sitting by the lake, but this time when she gets up we soon come to realize that she is an actor working on a film set and the cabin has now become a place where a film crew is shooting a film. The roles are also reversed as Plaza is now playing the role of the jealous wife and Gadon is now playing the role that Plaza was playing in the first part of the movie, while Abbot is now playing the director of the film shoot, and there is another gentlemen, the actor Alexander Koch, who is playing a version of Abbot’s character Gabe from the first half of the film. LOL, confused yet? Yeah I don’t blame ya, it’s kind of a mind fuckey way of expressing the point that life imitates art and art imitates life, while also addressing a personal element, as when you are a filmmaker or a true cinephile, cinema is an all consuming thing and actually becomes not just a part of your life, but your life.
In the filmmaking part of the story, Lawrence Michael Levine seems to go to great lengths to display the dynamics of an indie film set, like having a shot of the camera operator hand the camera off to one of his camera assistants. But I can’t help but point out a couple minor discrepancies in his below the line pecking order. First of all, the Hair Department head, played by Lindsay Brudge (who you may have seen in ‘The Invitation’, as the Manson-esque bitch from hell) wouldn’t have a walkie talkie on her. Let me back up a moment here. On a film set, various department’s are given walkie talkie’s with microphones or headsets. Each department has a separate channel and this is how they communicate with each other on the vast terrain of a film set. But since the hair and make-up people work so closely with the actors, they aren’t given radios, as you want to try and protect the actors from the issues that can arise from the production side, so the actors can just focus on acting. Also there is one scene where the First Assistant Director (they are the right hand of the director and run the production side of the film set so the director can focus on working with the actors) asks the script supervisor if they have eyes on the talent and if they can go find the missing talent. This wouldn’t happen either, as that’s not the script supervisor’s job, and the 1st A.D. has an entire team of other assistant directors and production assistants to do such things.
Discrepancies aside, this is Plaza’s first time in a leading dramatic role in the fourteen years she has been acting in films. And while I don’t feel that she necessarily makes the cut as a dramatic lead, she does quite a competent job of channeling Elisabeth Moss level / Gena Rowlands-esque neuroticism. You really feel like Plaza is going all out on this one. And she could also be potentially tapping into her own experiences of working with her life partner, Jeff Baena, whom she has also been directed by. Sarah Gadon again shows shades of her “I seem normal on the surface, but am actually bat-shit crazy” mode that she perfected in the ever so lovely ‘Indignation’ from 2016. And Christopher Abbot again, proves time and time again, that he is one of the finest working screen actor’s of this generation.