Review: ‘Black Bear,’ starring Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon

January 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott in “Black Bear” (Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures)

“Black Bear”

Directed by Lawrence Michael Levine

Culture Representation: Taking place in upstate New York, the dramatic film “Black Bear” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman with apparent emotional problems is at the center of chaos during a potential love triangle.

Culture Audience: “Black Bear” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted independent films that make people question what is real in the story and what might be the imagination of a character in the story.

Sarah Gadon in “Black Bear” (Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures)

People who prefer movies with a straightforward narrative probably won’t like “Black Bear” very much, because the movie is divided into two very distinct stories, with one abruptly transitioning into the other without any explanation until the last few minutes of the movie. The three main actors in the movie portray different characters with the same names in each story. And this switch in characters might confuse viewers. Written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine, “Black Bear” is nonetheless worth watching for anyone who wants to see some good acting with compelling dialogue, even if the movie is somewhat erratic.

That uneven tone is because the movie’s first story, titled “Part One: The Bear in the Road,” is much better than the second story, titled “Part Two: The Bear by the Boat House.” Each story takes place at a lake house in the same wooded area in an unnamed part of upstate New York. (“Black Bear” was actually filmed in Long Lake, New York.) In each story, someone hears bear noises nearby. And then, a black bear shows up at a pivotal moment.

Each story begins with a scene of a woman (played by Aubrey Plaza) wearing a red one-piece swimsuit, looking contemplative and sitting cross-legged on a pier, with mist swirling around her. She then goes into a nearby house, sits down at a table, and opens what looks like a journal. Is this real or is it a dream?

In “The Bear in the Road” story, viewers find out that the woman is named Allison, an independent filmmaker who has rented the cabin-styled house as a retreat space to get over her writer’s block. Or so she says. Allison, who is also an actress, became a film director somewhat out of necessity because, as she says a little later in the story, she didn’t quit acting; she just stopped getting hired as an actress.

Allison is renting the house from an unmarried couple named Gabe (played by Christopher Abbott) and Blair (played by Sarah Gadon), who used to live in Brooklyn but the couple moved to upstate New York because they could no longer afford to live in Brooklyn. Gabe owns the house, which has been in his family for years. Blair is pregnant with her and Gabe’s first child together, and Blair is in her third trimester. There’s simmering tension between Blair and Gabe that eventually boils over to the surface.

Gabe is the one who greets Allison when she arrives at the house. It’s their first time meeting each other. And from the get-go, it’s obvious that Gabe and Allison are attracted to each other. Allison and Gabe have a mutual friend named Mike (who is not seen in the movie), who has told Gabe that Allison is married. When Gabe asks Allison why her husband isn’t with her, Allison tells Gabe that she doesn’t have a husband.

Blair notices the way that Gabe has been looking at Allison. And so, when Gabe introduces Allison to Blair, one of the first things that Allison says to Blair is that Blair is pretty, while Blair returns the compliment. Astute viewers will notice that this is Allison’s way of trying to dispel any insecurities that Blair might be feeling about Allison being an attractive stranger who has caught Gabe’s attention. Ironically, Allison later tells Gabe that she doesn’t like getting compliments about herself.

Gabe, Blair and Allison have dinner together during Allison’s first night at the house. What starts out as a polite “let’s get to know each other” gathering turns into a highly emotional standoff with Gabe and Blair arguing and Allison being somewhat caught in the middle. During this tension-filled situation, viewers find out that Blair has issues with Gabe’s chosen profession as a musician. Because he makes very little money as a musician, Blair doesn’t think Gabe should call himself a “professional” musician. He’s very defensive about it in a way that he thinks any criticism that Blair makes about his career is a direct attack on his masculinity.

Blair also announces to Allison that Gabe believes in traditional gender roles, which Gabe denies. Blair frequently accuses Gabe of being sexist, which he also denies. However, Gabe admits that he has this belief: “The erosion of traditional communities is part of why things are so chaotic right now. I’m not saying feminism is bad.”

During this escalating agitation between Gabe and Blair, there are hints that Allison wants to take Gabe’s side. When Blair berates Gabe for supposedly being against feminism, Allison chimes in by saying that feminism is “fucked up.” Allison and Gabe also seem to have the same sense of humor, because she laughs at Gabe’s jokes that Blair thinks are silly.

While Gabe and Blair are working out their relationship issues in this very hostile way, they also try to get a read on Allison, who comes across as someone who is mysterious and might not always be telling the truth about herself. At one point in the conversation, when Allison mentions that she never learned how to cook, Blair asks her in a surprised tone of voice why Allison’s mother never taught her how to cook. This is the same Blair who insults Dave for believing in traditional gender roles, even though Blair obviously assumes all women should know how to cook. Can you say “hypocrisy”?

Allison’s reply is to tell Blair that Allison’s mother died when she was a child. Instead of expressing remorse at her thoughtless comment, Blair continues to pick apart Gabe and then turns some of her vitriol on Allison too. When Allison says that she doesn’t think about her films after she makes them, Blair accuses Allison of being “selfish.” When Gabe accuses Blair of not letting him have his own thoughts, Blair responds by saying: “It’s not that I can’t stand that you have thoughts about the world. It’s that I can’t stand the thoughts about the world that you have.”

Meanwhile, Gabe chastises Blair for drinking wine during the dinner. He believes that Blair shouldn’t be drinking any alcohol during her pregnancy, while Blair thinks he’s being unreasonable and that a little wine won’t hurt the baby. Of course, their arguing isn’t really about the wine but about their conflicting outlooks on life. And their impending parenthood has forced Blair and Gabe to think about how they are going to raise their child when they can’t even agree on how they should live as a couple.

It’s later revealed that Blair is probably feeling very insecure because the pregnancy was unplanned and she might be thinking that Gabe is only staying in the relationship because of the child. And now, Allison has come into the picture, and a very pregnant Blair can’t help but notice that there’s a mutual spark between Gabe and Allison. It comes as no surprise that Blair begins to have doubts over whether or not Gabe still loves her. Before this story is over, some secrets are revealed, and there’s some more messy drama that leads to a big confrontation.

“The Bear by the Boat House” story has more characters but it’s not as interesting as “The Bear in the Road” story. In “The Bear by the Boat House,” Allison is now a character who is an actress who’s been married for six years to a director named Gabe. The story takes place on the last day of a film shoot of a movie that they are doing together. The name of the movie is “Black Bear.” It’s being filmed at the same pier and house that were in “The Bear in the Road” story.

In “The Bear by the Boat House” story, Allison (not Blair) is the character who is very emotionally fragile with jealousy tendencies, while Blair is a self-assured co-star in the film who might or might not be the third person in a love triangle. There’s sexual tension between Gabe and Blair. Gabe wants Allison to think that he’s having an affair with Blair so that he can get the necessary emotions out of Allison in their last day of making the movie.

Blair is in cahoots with Gabe over this emotional manipulation. There are scenes of Gabe and Blair having secret meet-ups in hushed voices to plot how they can trick Allison and possibly other people on the film set into thinking that Gabe might be cheating on Allison with Blair. Gabe and Blair plan it in such detail that they decide in advance how to look at each other and when to exit and leave the room, to make it look like they’re trying to cover up an affair.

Blair seems to feel a little bit guilty over these mind games, but in the end, she gleefully goes along with this scheme because she wants Gabe’s approval. Gabe has already been showing obvious favoritism to Blair on the film set, in order to plant the seeds of jealousy in Allison’s mind. Gabe also belittles Allison on the film set, in order to make her feel even more insecure.

The emotional distress is too much for Allison, and it leads to a long, drawn-out sequence where she gets stoned on an unnamed drug and has a hard time completing the last scene that they have to film. Gabe didn’t expect this damper on his carefully laid plan. Viewers will then have to wonder if Allison can finish the movie in the way Gabe wanted and if Gabe will tell Allison the truth about how he manipulated her.

Some of the members of the film crew who are caught up in this drama include a script supervisor named Nora (played by Jennifer Kim), a production assistant named Cahya (played by Paola Lázaro) and a cinematographer named Baako (played by Grantham Coleman). Plaza has some over-the-top melodramatics in this story, but she handles it with a certain authenticity so that it doesn’t go off the rails into becoming a campy performance. There are indications that the Allison character in this story has some underlying issues with mental health that can’t be blamed on Allison’s drug use.

“Black Bear” the movie (not the movie within the movie) is essentially a showcase for Plaza’s dramatic range as an actress. Plaza, who is one of the producers of “Black Bear,” is mostly known for her roles in comedies, but she is a clear standout in expressing the wide gamut of emotions that she does in “Black Bear.” Each “Allison” is at the center of the chaos in each story, but these two Allison characters are very different from each other. The Allison in the first story is a manipulator who likes to be in control, while the Allison in the second story is the one who’s being manipulated and is out of control.

Gadon also gives an impressive performance in her role as the shrewish Blair in “The Bear in the Road” story, but the Blair character in “The Bear by the Boat House” is unfortunately quite bland. Abbott’s Gabe character is also more nuanced and more interesting in “The Bear in the Road” story, whereas the Gabe character in “The Bear by the Boat House” doesn’t have much character development beyond being a conniving and selfish person.

“Black Bear” should be given a lot of credit for attempting not to be a typical “mumblecore” independent film, which is what it first appears to be if people judged the movie by its trailer. “The Bear in the Road” story crackles with energy because the characters and dialogue are written so well. However, “Black Bear” falls a little flat in the second half in “The Bear by the Boat House” story, because Allison’s meltdown becomes a little too repetitive and predictable.

Plaza’s acting talent shines throughout the movie, but the way that “The Bear by the Boat House” is written could have been improved by giving more depth to the characters of Gabe and Blair, who come across as very shallow in that story. People who have the patience to sit through this movie to find out what it all means will at least get answers to some questions in the last five minutes of the film. However, “Black Bear” still has enough “fill in the blank” moments that give viewers the freedom to interpret the movie in a variety of ways.

Momentum Pictures released “Black Bear” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on December 4, 2020.

Review: ‘Seberg,’ starring Kristen Stewart

February 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kristen Stewart in “Seberg” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“Seberg”

Directed by Benedict Andrews

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, France and briefly in Mexico, the biographical drama “Seberg” has a racially diverse cast of white and black characters representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: The film tells the story of American actress Jean Seberg, who was the target of FBI surveillance because of her support of left-wing civil-rights groups such as the Black Panthers.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to fans of Jean Seberg, Kristen Stewart (who plays Seberg in the movie) and people who like movies that have a very Hollywood version of real-life politically related events.

Jack O’Connell in “Seberg” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

The title of the “based on true story” drama “Seberg” should have been renamed “Seberg and Some FBI Guy Who Tried to Warn Her That They’re Out to Get Her.” That’s because even though the movie is supposed to be about American actress Jean Seberg (played by Kristen Stewart) during the first few years that she was the target of a political FBI intimidation campaign, much of the movie also focuses on the life of fictional FBI agent Jack Solomon (played by Jack O’Connell), one of the people tasked with making her life hell but he has a guilty conscience about it.

It’s one of the many disappointing choices made by the filmmakers of “Seberg,” which was directed by Benedict Andrews and written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. Based on the end results of how this movie was made, the filmmakers didn’t think Seberg was fascinating enough to show a more well-rounded view of her life, and instead they gave a lot of screen time to show the personal life of a fictional FBI agent.

Because Jack Solomon is a fictional character and the filmmakers want to make sure that his personal story is given almost as much weight as Seberg’s, the movie cheapens her real-life ordeal by spending so much time on backstories/subplots for other characters that were invented for this movie. There’s even a cliché “good cop/bad cop” duo that is the epitome of trite screenwriting.

Seberg was 40 years old when she died of an apparent suicide in Paris in 1979. The movie mainly depicts the years 1969 to 1971, when Seberg was one of the people targeted in the FBI’s then-secret COINTELPRO campaign, which investigated and harassed high-profile and influential people involved in left-wing politics. Because of the Freedom of Information Act, the media revealed details of COINTELPRO, which was under the leadership of then-FBI director Herbert Hoover, a known right-winger. The exposé of COINTELPRO happened after Seberg’s death.

“Seberg” begins with a brief scene with the actress filming her first movie, 1957’s “Saint Joan,” which was a critical and commercial flop, but that rough start to her movie career is not really mentioned in “Seberg.” The movie also skips over her turbulent first marriage to French attorney-turned-film-director François Moreuil (they were married from 1958 to 1960) and their contentious collaboration when he directed her in the 1961 film “Time Out for Love.”

Also omitted from the story is how she met and married her second husband: aviator/novelist/left-leaning political diplomat Romain Gary, who was 24 years older than Seberg. Gary was her husband from 1962 to 1970. (She gave birth to their son, Alexandre Diego, when Gary was still married to his previous wife.) And the movie definitely doesn’t show what happened to Jean after her much-maligned “Saint Joan” film debut, when she went on to experience international stardom with her breakthrough co-starring role in the 1960 French New Wave classic “Breathless.”

Instead, “Seberg” skips over all of that to show Jean, Romain (played by Yvan Attal) and their young son Diego (played by Gabriel Sky) at their home in France, where Jean says goodbye to them as she leaves to work on a movie in Los Angeles in 1969. (During most of her career, Seberg lived in France and made French and American films, so she spent a lot of time in the U.S. for work.)

While she’s headed to Los Angeles, two FBI agents (who are invented characters for this movie) are shown eavesdropping and doing surveillance recording of an African American political radical named Hakim Jamal (played by Anthony Mackie), who is a Black Panther supporter but not an official member of the Black Panther Party. (The Hakim character is based on the real-life Raymond Hewitt, who was a member of the Black Panther Party.) One of the FBI agents is the aforementioned Jack Solomon, and the other is Carl Kowalski (played by Vince Vaughn).

It’s established fairly early on in the movie who’s the “good cop” and who’s the “bad cop.” While Jack takes a more open-minded and methodical approach to his work, Carl takes a more aggressive “witch hunt” approach. While they’re spying on Hakim, the name of Jean Seberg comes up because the FBI has noticed that she’s been donating large sums of money to left-leaning civil-rights groups such as the Black Panthers and the NAACP. Carl thinks that the FBI should start spying on Seberg too, but Jack doesn’t want to rush to judgment and wants to see if there’s proof that she’s a threat to the U.S. government.

While sitting in the first-class section on the plane to Los Angeles with her agent Walt Breckman (played by Stephen Root, in another of the movie’s fictional character roles), Jean notices a commotion on the plane. It’s Hakim, who’s very angry with a flight attendant because Betty Shabazz (Malcom X’s widow) has been seated in the coach section, when Hakim says that Betty should be in the first-class section. It’s a “don’t you know who she is/show some respect” moment that catches the flustered flight-attendant off-guard.

The flight attendant tells Hakim that she can’t make the accommodation without a first-class ticket, and Hakim gets even angrier and says that he will pay for the ticket himself and he’s not going to sit down until the matter is resolved. Hakim makes it clear that he thinks the flight attendant is being racist. Jean is intrigued by Hakim’s fiery passion and tells him that he and Betty can have her and Walt’s seats. Walt looks slightly horrified.

The next thing you know, after the plane disembarks, Hakim is among a group of Black Panthers on the tarmac holding a photo op with the press.  (Remember, this was back in the 1960s, when people were allowed to be in certain areas of an airport where they can’t go now.) Jean sidles up to the group and holds up her fist in a “Black Power” gesture with them to show her solidarity.

Of course, this bold move doesn’t go unnoticed by Jack and Carl (or should we say Mutt and Jeff), who now know that Jean Seberg has definitely made it known to the public that she supports the Black Panthers, who were considered enemies of the state at the time. And in case viewers haven’t figured out that Carl is a racist, he makes it clear when he speculates why Jean wants to hang out with Hakim and the Black Panthers: “Who knows? Maybe she’s got a taste for dark meat on the bone.”

And wouldn’t you know, it isn’t long before Jean shows up in the middle of the night at the house where a married Hakim is staying to meet with other radical activists. While alone in the house, Hakim and Jean spend a little time flirting, and then they hop into bed together. The FBI has recorded it all.

Carl is infuriated and immediately wants to put Jean under intense surveillance, since he’s decided she’s now a “danger to society.” The movie implies that what really triggered the FBI witch hunt against her wasn’t the monetary donations to activists but because this famous white actress slept with a known black radical.

Carl takes this information to his superiors, and it isn’t long before the FBI approves of spying on and harassing Jean Seberg. While she’s away from her rented home to work on a film set, Jack breaks into the home and plants a bugging device on her phone. Meanwhile, as Hakim and Jean continue their hot’n’heavy affair, Hakim warns her that because he’s under FBI surveillance, she’ll become a target too.

At first, Jean doesn’t believe Hakim, but she eventually finds out the hard way how correct he was. Jean starts hanging out more with radical activists and donating money to their causes. She doesn’t believe in violence and instead chooses to support causes such as educational programs for kids and raising money to help improve low-income African American communities. Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale (played by Grantham Coleman) makes a very brief appearance in the story.

Hakim is more than happy to take Jean’s donations, but he tells Jean: “You’re running in here with nails looking for a cross to die on … You’re playing with fire.” We’ll never know if the real Jean Seberg ever received this type of corny lecture, but the words are particularly cringeworthy, considering that the real Jean Seberg starred in “Saint Joan,” a movie where she played French heroine Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake.

Another thing that Hakim says to Jean that sounds straight out of Hokey Screenwriting 101 is when he tells her his philosophy on civil-rights activism: “One mind at a time. If you can change that, you can change the world.” He sounds more like Mother Teresa than Malcolm X.

There’s also a soap-opera-ish subplot where Hakim’s wife, Dorothy Jamal (played by Zazie Beetz, in a thankless role), finds out about the affair. How does she find out? Carl and Jack call her anonymously and play her a recording of Jean and Hakim having sex.

Not long after Dorothy confronts Jean about the affair (and Dorothy is a lot calmer about it than most spouses would be), Jean and Hakim end their fling. But the wheels have already been set in motion for the FBI to make Jean’s life miserable. She’s followed everywhere she goes, and she knows her house is bugged. And one day when she’s away at work, a bumbling FBI agent kills her Chihuahua because the dog won’t stop yapping when the agent is snooping around the house.

Speaking of FBI agents, the movie wastes a lot of time showing the personal lives of Jack and Carl. Jack’s wife Linette (played by Margaret Qualley) is a medical student who becomes increasingly disturbed by the signs that the FBI is harassing Jean Seberg. How does she know? Because Jack brings home FBI files that show the FBI is stalking Jean, and her leaves this paperwork indiscreetly out on the kitchen table. When Linette asks Jack about these files, he snaps at her and tells her it’s none of her business. There are also a few unnecessary scenes of Jack and Linette socializing with friends.

Meanwhile, Carl is every bit the jerk at home as he is on the job. His wife and young daughter cringe in fear when he loses his temper, which is pretty much any time they don’t do what he tells them to do. It turns out that Carl has a particular hatred of left-wingers because his adult son (who lives in San Francisco) has become a radical hippie. Did viewers really need to know all of this information for fictional characters? No.

“Seberg” then goes to even more ludicrous levels when Jack takes it upon himself to anonymously call Jean and warn her that the FBI harassment will get worse unless she disassociates herself from the civil-rights movement. Jean’s response is to yell an obscenity at him. You can’t really blame her, because she doesn’t know if the call is a prank or not, since Jack doesn’t identify himself.

The constant surveillance and harassment take a toll on Jean’s mental health and her marriage. She starts to drink heavily and she becomes very paranoid. While on a film set, she demands that a cameraman be fired because she’s convinced he’s a spy planted by the FBI. She yells at people who she thinks might be staring at her too long. And there’s one melodramatic scene where she’s tearing up a room while looking for surveillance, and she ends up in a sobbing heap on the floor.

While in Mexico filming a movie, she has an affair with a local man. And when the FBI hears about her pregnancy, they make sure to plant a story in the media that Hakim is the father. The scandal resulted in a tragedy that won’t be revealed in this review if you don’t know what happened in real life.

Stewart gives a hit-and-miss performance in this film. She’s at her best in the first half of the story, when there are glimpses of the passions that drove Jean to do what she did, knowing that she would risk her reputation and career. But when Jean goes through her downward spiral in the second half of the story, Stewart’s performance becomes a not-very-convincing caricature of a woman having a nervous breakdown. And FBI agent Jack does something at the end of the movie that defies all credibility of what someone in his position would do.

Unfortunately, because the movie skips all of Jean’s life before she got involved in radical activism, it doesn’t provide any context over what led her to this point and how she came to have these political views. Her relationship with second husband Romain is also an incomplete sketch, since viewers never see how Jean and Romain fell in love, as a basis of their marriage that’s tested during this traumatic period in their lives.

The movie’s supporting actors, costume design and production design are all very good, but those assets are wasted on an uneven story that oddly seems too concerned with making a heroic figure out of one of the FBI agents who willingly participated in this psychological torture.

Amazon Studios released “Seberg” in select U.S. cinemas on February 21, 2020. The movie originally had a very limited U.S. release in December 2019, to qualify for awards.

Copyright 2017-2022 Culture Mix
CULTURE MIX