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'Black Bear' Review | Aubrey Plaza's outstanding performance is the takeaway from this skillful mind bender

Lawrence Michael Levine's moody take on the trials and tribulations of a film set is a darkly humorous take on "Birdman." Do it for Plaza's work alone.
Credit: Momentum Pictures

ST. LOUIS — What happens when the space between reality and art is eliminated, creating a place where art is no longer an imitation?

After all, a filmmaker or actress sometimes needs some real life residue to help create that force for a performance. But the heat doesn't get any higher than when two creatives clash on a set, a film that could enhance their professional lives, if hindering a relationship severely at the same time. That's the main gambit taking place at the center of Lawrence Michael Levine's fascinating film, "Black Bear."

Levine's greatest weapon here as a filmmaker is Aubrey Plaza, who is finally turned loose onscreen. She plays Allison, an acclaimed but torturous actress who heads out to a creative retreat to unlock new ideas and climb over writer's block, but finds her world being upended. Tumultuous events follow, and madness ensues.

I can't tell you more about it. Spoilers will be needed, and maybe a fresh Dose of Buffa podcast could be in order. But I will tell you that Plaza carries the film on her shoulders. She showed us her talents in "Safety Guaranteed" and "Ingrid Goes West," but this new film is something else. "Black Bear" gets its name from a particular plot twist, something else I won't exactly spoil.

Levine, a longtime actor himself, enlightens his viewers about the filmmaking process. The two hour film has three acts that border on the psychological effects of performance-but there are several detailed moments where the hardest workers on a film set get the chance to shine. Paola Lazaro's Cahya, the assistant director and everywoman on a film set. Jennifer Kim's Nora, the script-holder who gets shouted at for lines from the higher paid actors. Lindsey Burdge's Maude, the multi-tasking caretaker on the set, soothing the edges that separate real emotion from the scripted line.

"Black Bear" has the patience to tell a complex yet highly important story, and honor the "deckhands" of a film set. The hard workers who make the magic possible. If the film had focused all its energy on Allison's inner demons and external troubles, the film may have been overwhelming. But Levine wisely evades oversaturation by showcasing the entire cast of his film and their dedicated and often tedious roles.

In one scene, Cahya and Maude have to physically and mentally help Allison recover before a big scene, and the three actresses make it all seamless and maddening at the same time. Non-selfish work from everyone here. The little things that most "movie within a movie" setups bypass, Levine pauses to focus on here.

If I had to sell this film quickly, I would refer to it as a hypnotic and darkly funny riff on Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Birdman," a similarity that will be fully understood after you experience this film. Trust me, the wheels spin right up until the end. But Levine's script never tips its hand too much, settling into that cerebral threshold that requires nuance and keeps you off-balanced.

Plaza makes it all come together in the end. You believe in her battle of wills, and invest the time. The film hits hard due to her. She has been in a lot of films you remember, but never this far in the lead. While main co-stars Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon shine in their supporting roles, Plaza (who was also a producer on the film) is the one who pumps the blood into the story and brings the dialogue to life.

Bottom Line: "Black Bear" isn't quite what you think it is during the first 30 minutes. The film evolves and takes different shapes. It vividly constructs a vicious reality/subconscious hybrid setting, one where real life and filmmaking can collide at will. It's a mind trip for sure, but a worthy one in the end.

You've been hearing a lot about this mystery flick in the awards race, but is it a great film, or merely a good one? ST. LOUIS - Two weary travelers start a bakery in the woods, with hopes of tasting the American Dream. Does that sound like something you'd be interested in?

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