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Caffeinated Writer's Movie Critique: Black Bear (2020)

Spoiler Warning: This review contains major spoilers and is intended to be read after viewing the movie!

Welcome to our first edition of the Caffeinated Writer's Movie Critique series. If there's two things you know about Loud Coffee Press, it's that we love our coffee and music. It probably won't surprise you that we love movies, too! After a long day of reading submissions and writing, there's nothing we enjoy more than watching a movie to shut off our brains.

But being writers, our brains never shut off, especially when we're enjoying any kind of consumable entertainment that's built around story. After a good flick (or a magnificent dud) we often find ourselves chewing over the narrative, dialogue, and plot points like ravenous crows. Why? Because writers can learn a great deal by attentively watching movies.

Why was that character so flat? How did that plot hole almost swallow the whole film? What happened to that gun that the killer left at the crime scene?

These are the things occupy our writer brains for days after watching a super-tight film (Star Wars) or an utter mess of dead-end plot lines (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker).

This blog series is our attempt to dissect movies from a writer's point of view. Unlike most movies reviews, our focus is primarily on the story. We're interested in deep characterization, crisp dialogue, a tight narrative, and a powerful arc--everything that we hope for when we read a good book or when we attempt our own writing.

This is our first entry in this series, so it might be a little rough, but “bear” with us as we analyze the strange and perplexing Black Bear!

Brief synopsis: Black Bear is a 2020 film written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine, starring Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, and Sarah Gadon. It’s many things: Black Bear is either a film within a film, two films back to back, neither, or both. In one version, Plaza is a guest hosted by a young pregnant couple (Abbott and Gadon), whose presence disrupts the couple’s already tumultuous life. In the alternate version, Plaza is a troubled actress/filmmaker starring in her own work. Her husband (Abbott) and co-star (Gadon) push Plaza to the brink through bizarre method acting. The movie is cut with scenes of Plaza as a writer seeking inspiration in a remote mountain house.

Characterization: Black Bear is a different kind of film because the three major characters, Allison (Plaza), Gabe (Abbott), and Blair (Gadon) play different versions of the same characters in the movie. For instance, in the first part of the film, Plaza portrays Allison as a quirky filmmaker renting a home from Gabe and Blair so that she can use their lake house for writing inspiration. After an abrupt tragedy, the film switches gears and thrusts the viewer in what appears to be a film production of the first part of the movie. Allison is now an actress playing a character similar to Blair from part one.

The writers of the film took care to distinguish the characters as they transition into different, yet similar roles in the movie. In part one, Gabe and Blair are portrayed as a 20-something couple who are expecting a child, yet can't hold a simple conversation without passive-aggressive sniping. In part two, the same characters are now in the role of a Kubrick-esque director (Gabe) and an aspiring actress (Blair) who torment Allison in the hopes of getting a raw performance out of her. This is accomplished by subtle shifts in dialogue and body language. Plaza, who is known for playing the quirky girl with a dark sense of humor-which she plays during the first part of the film-is suddenly thrust into the role of a bitter, problematic actress, who bristles as her director husband seeming flirts with Blair.

Dialogue: “Gabe: Why’d you lie to me about your husband?

Allison: I’ve been lying since the second I got here. My mother’s fine. Well, she’s a bitch, but she’s alive. She’s in Wisconsin.

Gabe: [laughs] What?

Allison: I’m a really good cook. Um, I just have zero interest in having a family. I think children are disgusting. And as for my scripts, I usually start with like a really simple premise, like… “Good triumphs over evil”, and, um… I stopped getting hired as an actor because I was difficult.” - Black Bear (2020)

The dialogue in this movie is fast, it’s punchy, dizzying and smart. Aside from the movie’s quirky dual storyline, it’s the component that keeps the movie afloat. These characters talk so much that you forget you’re watching scripted dialogue, and yet the conversation seems too perfectly irrational to be improvised. If you’ve seen Plaza in anything before, this movie has her quintessential wit; dry and sardonic. Levine has written Abbott and Gadon’s roles to keep pace with Plaza’s character delightfully well. When you find yourself in disbelief that the dialogue is too over-the-top to be real, take five minutes to scroll through TikTok and then come back to this movie. Levine has hit on a generational pulse.

Narrative: From a writer’s perspective, this narrative does something interesting. It creates two tight, straightforward stories, that as a whole leave the reader thinking for days. (Personal note: we at Loud Coffee Press have a soft spot for this lasting effect when done well.) Taken as a whole, the narrative is unconventional in that it is two narratives that don’t necessarily equate to a parts I and II. In fact, that’s the part of this film that leaves the lasting impression - how exactly do these two narratives fit together? Did Plaza experience her role as the guest and then write the movie we see in the second narrative? Did Plaza write her role as a guest as “draft one” and then the movie we see is the “final” draft? Is none of it real? It’s hard to say how these two truly interconnect without making some assumptions.

And yet, taken individually, each part of the film has a payoff. Within the movie’s two major sub-films, there are no loose ends. There aren’t even any major subplots. Each mini-subplot (minor love stories, etc.) exist within the actual narrative, and the story itself takes no major deviations.

The point of view is intimate in the first part of the movie, and a bit looser in the second part. In part one, with Plaza as the guest, only three characters exist. Part one is a movie about feelings, emotions, and flirtations. We zoom out in the second half of the movie, with Plaza as the actress, and the point of view becomes third person omniscient. There are over a dozen extras in this portion of the movie (from the actual film crew), and we view the movie as a fly on the wall. The camera pans wider and the story moves in a bigger way.

Story arc: The story arcs for both parts of the movie are well done. In the first part, what starts off as a friendly conversation between a couple renting their house to a filmmaker escalates quickly into tragedy as each character reveals themselves through biting dialogue. Plaza lies about her mother dying and being a bad cook, only to admit to Gabe that she lied about those things right before they commit adultery. In the second part of the film, Gabe and Blair conspire to make Allison jealous to get a performance out of her. The plan quickly spirals out of control as Allison self-medicates with alcohol, throwing the movie production into chaos.

Conclusion: ☕️☕️☕️☕️

The Caffeinated Writer is giving Black Bear four coffee cups out of a possible five. Major points for dialogue, a tight narrative and a unique approach, but try as we might, we couldn‘t use our context clues to pair both parts of the movie in one meaningful way. This movie is what the viewer (or writer) wants it to be, and in that regard, although a fantastic view, comes across as mildly self-indulgent.

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