Aubrey Plaza Finally Found a Movie As Dark As She Is with ‘Black Bear’

Aubrey Plaza has always had a dark sense of humor. She got to be sarcastic in Parks and Recreation and in movies like Funny People and as the mom in Child’s Play. She played a bit more mainstream leading lady in Safety Not Guaranteed and The To-Do List but played a lovable zombie in Life After Beth. Her characters in Legion, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates and Ingrid Goes West were more extreme but Black Bear is by far her darkest role yet. 

Aubrey Plaza
Aubrey Plaza |Dan Campbell/Sundance Institute

Black Bear premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and it is a bit uneven. One can appreciate how writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine and the cast went there, but they may have gone there without a plan. 

Aubrey Plaza in ‘Black Bear’ part one

Black Bear is actually divided into two parts. In the first half, Allison (Plaza) visits Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon)’s cabin in the woods by the lake where Gabe and Blair quickly make things uncomfortable. Blair digs into Gabe’s views on gender roles while Gabe gets defensive over her dismissal of his music career. 

Black Bear: Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott
Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott | Rob Leitzell/Sundance Institute

Gabe also monitors Blair’s drinking while pregnant, which frankly he’s right. All the passive aggressive dialogue of the dinner is uncomfortable, but watching a pregnant woman have a second and third glass of wine causes genuine concern for the baby. The argument continues into the evening going to even more uncomfortable places, and actions that compromise the baby.

Aubrey Plaza in ‘Black Bear’ part two

After the first half of Black Bear reaches a dark conclusion, the second part changes the roles entirely. Now Allison is an actor in a film Gabe is directing. Gabe and Allison are married now but Gabe is using Blair to manipulate Allison into giving a better performance.

Aubrey Plaza and Sarah Gadon
L-r: Sarah Gadon and Aubrey Plaza | Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Heineken

There’s a larger cast in the second half because there’s a whole film crew milling about behind the scenes. There are some wacky shenanigans on the set, including some slapstick as production assistant Maude (Lindsay Burge) keeps bumping into people. Assistant director Cahya (Paola Lazaro) is having tummy trouble that threatens to turn the movie scatological.

Allison gets drunk to film her big scene and starts changing the lines. She makes everything uncomfortable again, both in terms of completing the shot and in terms of everyone’s relationships behind the scenes. 

Discomfort alone is not art

Both parts of Black Bear deal with uncomfortable social dynamics. It would be fair to call them cringe comedy, although it’s darker than the social faux pas of Curb Your Enthusiasm. When Blair tells Allison she wants to “pick a real artist’s brain” in part one, she’s blatantly asserting she doesn’t consider Gabe a real artist. 

Aubrey Plaza
Aubrey Plaza | Owen Hoffmann/Getty Images Courtesy of Rand Luxury

The discussion of gender roles illustrates how someone like Gabe can express what he considers an objective point. Yet it’s a subject so sensitive that those around him cannot see it objectively. The entire exercise “for the sake of objective debate” is upsetting people for an abstract point that doesn’t really need to be expressed. It’s not going to resolve anything in society. 

The risk to an unborn baby is relevant. It underlines that there is a fourth party in the scene that the three leads are putting at risk for their petty squabbles. It can’t help but feel a tad cheap, that the pregnancy is only there to give the filmmakers a tool to potentially upset the viewer. 

A two parter with little resolution

The second part is too long. It feels like Black Bear is waiting for a third story, a tie breaker if you will, but instead of that it just drags the second half on. Yeah, directors can be manipulative tyrants, actors can be needy and difficult, and so can people in any profession. 

Plaza, Abbott and Gadon are good in their roles but the material lacks a satisfying catharsis. An actual bear plays into both stories, slightly, but if that’s a metaphor it’s really thin. Your mileage may vary. The ambiguous darkness of Black Bear may be satisfying to Aubrey Plaza fans, but other viewers may just find it sarcastic and aloof.