If your only experience of the remarkable Aubrey Plaza is from watching her on Netflix as the devastatingly sarcastic April Ludgate in "Parks & Recreation," you have a pleasant surprise awaiting you. As good as she was playing a perpetually irritated, somewhat mean spirited Millennial in a network comedy, she has vastly more range at her disposal than you might suspect. Though her roles are often at least distantly comedic -- check out Jeff Baena's "The Little Hours," in which she plays a nun in the middle ages who's fascinated with the palace intrigue of her convent -- she is quite capable of digging deeper into emotional dregs. If you need to be further convinced, her considerable abilities are never more on display than here, in Lawerence Michael Levine's meta-within-meta film "Black Bear," in which she plays a striking pair of character variations in virtually the same breath.
What to make of the film itself is another matter entirely. The first half is a specific sort of indie drama in which a young couple, Gabe and Blair (Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon), living upstate in a glorious lakehouse away from Brooklyn, are visited by an actress-cum-director named Allison (Plaza), there to work on a new project. The second half is, essentially, the "Noises Off-"like behind the scenes riff on how the trio (now with the actresses' roles essentially switched) worked together to produce a variation of the film we were just watching.
In part one, dubbed "The Bear in the Road," Plaza's character is territorial and coquettish, instantly attracted to Abbott's lonely musician, enticing him into disavowing his pregnant partner, without a care as to the emotional cost of the transgression. In a sense, it's a bit of a riff on Plaza's best-known role ("You're really hard to read," Blair tells her at dinner; "You know," Allison says with a smile, "I get that all the time"), but it's as if April Ludgate went beyond teasingly negative to become full-on ruthless, caring not a whit for the little people around her, whom she manipulates with Machiavellian glee.
As far as part one plays out, the trio quickly disassemble into jealous factions -- Gabe and Allison hitting it off, revealing unhappy tensions in the marriage, such that when Allison and Gabe consummate their growing attraction, Blair is left in the murderous cold.
In the second part, dubbed "The Bear by the Boat House," Abbott is now revealed as the film's director, and Plaza his driven wife, also the star of the film they're making together. In this version of reality, she is now the clingy partner, as the beautiful Gadon arrives from the city on a visit, causing a similar outbreak of emotional insecurity and jealousy, only this time, on the part of Allison, and directly in front of an aghast film crew. Art imitates life, imitating art imitating life, in the constructed edifice of a fictional film, which is itself a fictional "document" of the filmmakers themselves.
Needless to say, there is a lot to unpack here. Levine has said the film is about the artistic process, and the lengths artists are willing to go for true inspiration. From opposite angles, it would seem, we see Allison as the instigator of the narrative disruption -- first, as a coy, merciless intruder upon an obviously strained marriage; next, as the driving force behind a production which appears to be rending her emotional psyche apart -- in both cases, seeking the spark of creative inspiration, even if it means burning the entire house to the ground in the process.
There's a cagey wisdom at work, and an irony, rich in its multilayered approach (especially considering the "crew" in the film are yet another circle of actors performing in front of an actual working set of film operators and craftspeople), and impressively effective. Levine's control over atmosphere and tone, allowing the audience to flow between narrative fields, grants it a kind of floating credibility. But how it really works best is as a showcase for the actors' craft, shifting (seemingly) effortlessly between character interpretations.
I've long championed the Christopher Abbott cause, and he is, once again, outstanding, but in this film, it's Plaza's skills which are most notable. She's an absolute whirlwind, a revelation of ferocious, billowing emotion from one direction to the next. What could have played out as a theater class warm-up (play one character various ways) becomes a tour de force of emotional evocation. It is her conviction that keeps us riveted, even when Levine's pointed film-flammery might have otherwise simply been alienating. If it were possible to nominate a sports-like MVP for the production, go ahead and give her the game ball.
89 Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon, Paola Lázaro, Grantham Coleman, Lindsay Burdge, Lou Gonzalez
Director: Lawrence Michael Levine
Rating: R, for nudity, sexual content, drug use and language
Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes
Available for streaming through various platforms