“Everything is copy,” the late novelist, screenwriter and filmmaker Nora Ephron preached. Anything that happens to you or someone you know, everything that you overhear — fair game for a creative person. Especially one who’s “blocked.”
That might describe Allison, the character played by Aubrey Plaza in “Black Bear,” a sexy and edgy deep dive into “creatives” and their creativity, and conflicts we can see from a long way off because introducing stress into a situation is how you get drama out of it, on or off the screen.
Allison has rented a room in a couple’s house in a lakeside forest. Gabe (Christopher Abbott of TV’s “Catch-22”) picks her up and proceeds to ask a lot of questions and admits, eventually, to doing more research on their “guest” than he initially lets on.
She’s a movie director. She used to be an actress.
“People sort of stopped hiring me,” she says, explaining the switch because he’s asked. Because she’s “difficult?” “Maybe I’m just not attractive enough” is easier for her to own.
Once at the house, the third party — Blair (Sarah Gadon of last year’s run of “True Detective”) is pregnant, outspoken in her feminism and unfiltered in her reaction to Allison’s opinions (she alternately embraces and mocks feminism). A little wine, which Allison indulges in over Gabe’s objections, loosens everybody’s tongue.
The filmmaker is “waiting for something meaningful to happen to me.” Does she mean in her personal life, or her creative one? Because with the way Blair and Gabe start going at it, it’s obvious both could happen, and at the same time.
We know where this little third-wheel situation is going long before the metallic bickering delivers that line, worn out in “the other woman” tales since the beginning of time, is uttered.
“I SAW the way you were looking at her!”
And after the melodrama — contrived, preordained, sexual — has played out, the second movie begins, the movie about the making of a movie called “Black Bear.”
On a set filled with attractive film professionals unprofessional enough to let their flirting, hooking up and indulging get in the way, Gabe is now the filmmaker manipulating his distraught, diva wife (Plaza) by pretending to be carrying on with “the other woman” (Gadon) in this lakeside house in a forest where black bears roam.
“Write what you know” they tell you in creative writing classes, and actor turned writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine (“Wild Canaries”) is better prepared than most to turn the camera back on the people making the movie.
The intimacy of an indie film set, with a small — usually young because they’re cheaper to hire — crew, creates its own sexual tension. And filmmakers aren’t shy about lying, seducing or bullying their actors to get what they think they want out of them.
Plaza makes good use of her reputation for deadpan. But she doesn’t let us see Allison’s wheels turning. Is she giving in to passion, truly at a crossroads and lost, or is she just playing everybody to get a rise out of them and stir up something she can “use?”
That cinematic sage Val Kilmer, in his new memoir “I’m Your Huckleberry,” gives away the secret of why so many people in the acting/filmmaking profession are magnets for discord, divas and drama queens on and off sets, in and out of marriages. They feed off it, need it. It’s their “normal.” That’s what Levine taps into here.
Gadon plays two quite-different characters in the movie and the movie-with-a-movie, and makes both fascinating. Abbott makes Gabe an argumentative reactor in the first act, a cruel puppeteer in the second and is believable in both guises.
It’s not the neatest film-dissecting-filmmakers story, with rough edges, lurches in tone and trite tropes and dialogue. But the characters make us wince in recognition and the situations, even the ones we know are coming, are real enough to cringe over.
And all along, we ponder if anything and everything we see might be happening because somebody is playing somebody else, just for effect.
MPA Rating: R for language throughout, sexual content, drug use and some nudity
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Sarah Gad, Christopher Abbott
Credits: Written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine. A Momentum release.
Running time: 1:44