It’s a good, if perplexing, time to be a fan of Aubrey Plaza, the darkly magnetic actress who has risen over the past decade through TV comedy support (“Parks and Recreation”) to indie movie queen (“Safety Not Guaranteed,” “Ingrid Goes West”). On Hulu, Plaza is subverting the new holiday movie “The Happiest Season” as the girlfriend Kristen Stewart should end up with, and in “Black Bear,” a festival favorite now coming to major VOD platforms, she gets to stretch in an ambiguous but emotionally sprawling dramatic role.
The latter film is one of those meta-fictional puzzlers that turns in on itself, prompting audiences to wonder whose story is being told and in what order. This can be exciting and challenging or it can be tedious, and “Black Bear” is a mix of both. The set-up seems straightforward: A writer named Allison (Plaza), needing a retreat to jump-start a new screenplay, arrives at an AirBnB cabin in the woods. Her hosts are Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon), a pair of ex-Brooklynites whose hip, domestic vibe — Blair is pregnant — is a cover for a bitterly failing marriage.
The film’s first act turns into a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”-style bloodbath, with husband and wife baiting each other, and the visiting writer slyly switching from one side to the other and back again. It’s unnerving and hard to look away from, and it does not end well.
And then? Same cabin, different reality: Gabe is now a manipulative movie director and Allison is his actress-wife, heading toward a nervous breakdown over one increasingly fraught night of filmmaking cued to her jealousy of co-star Blair, who’s now the scheming other woman in the triangle. Is that first part we saw the movie they’re making? Is the second part the script the earlier Allison was writing? Discuss.
What keeps “Black Bear” from devolving into an arid academic head-trip — but at the same time prevents it from gelling as a cohesive experience — is the improvisatory intensity of the emotions on display. The drama unfolding on the film set and behind its scenes extends to the bickering of the crew, the games Gabe and Blair cruelly play to get a paranoid performance from Allison, Allison’s decision to drink a fifth of bourbon and wing it from there, and the desperate efforts of assistant director Cayha (Paola Lázaro) — the most sympathetic person in the movie — to keep the shoot from running off the rails.
Writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine has made a pair of well-received independent films — “Gabi on the Roof in July” (2010), “Wild Canaries” (2014) — and often collaborates with his filmmaker wife, Sophia Takal. Plaza has just as often appeared in movies written and directed by her longtime partner, Jeff Baena: “Life After Beth” (2014), “The Little Hours” (2018). “Black Bear” is extremely attuned to the agonies and ecstasies of creative couples — of how good art can make for bad relationships, and vice versa. The second part especially is a high-tension examination of artistic and domestic betrayal and whether one inevitably leads to the other.
Juicy stuff, but the filmmaking of “Black Bear” itself isn’t rigorous enough to keep the attention acutely focused — not everyone who films in the indie-guerrilla style of John Cassavetes is John Cassavetes — and the ideas bandied about by Levine’s script feel half-baked. The performances are strong: between this and “Possessor,” Abbott has had a very good year, and Gadon negotiates the hairpin turns of Blair’s character(s) with ease. Normally a coolly removed onscreen persona, Plaza lets her hair down in the film’s second half, giving Allison a needy, messy vulnerability that has the other characters looking away in pity and embarrassment. It’s a reckless performance — a controlled actor daring herself to lose control — and that’s the source of both its nerve and its limitations. With “Black Bear,” Plaza pushes her talent into raw new places. Now she has to figure out what to do there.
Written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine. Starring Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon, Paola Lázaro. Available on demand. 106 minutes. R (language throughout, sexual content, drug use, some nudity)