Sundance 2020: Black Bear, Shirley

Two of the most buzzed-about titles on the first weekend of Sundance 2020 concern at least partially the torture of living with creative people. And both verge into the surreal, blurring the line between traditional plotting and filmmaking drenched in symbolism and philosophy. They’re also both showcases for great performers who bite into these roles as hard as they can and don’t let go. The one that’s generally more acclaimed doesn’t work as well for me as it does some of my colleagues, who are willing to overlook more of its abrasive use of clichés about art and artists than I am. But let’s start with the one I kinda love.

Lawrence Michael Levine wrote the excellent “Always Shine” and his wife, actress Sophia Takal, directed that Mackenzie Davis film. He returns with another deconstruction of identity and art, and helms it himself this time in the excellent, darkly humorous “Black Bear,” starring Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon, and Aubrey Plaza. The film starts as a relatively straightforward (and yet still sharp) relationship dramedy with three strong personalities bouncing off each other at a remote lake house before becoming something even more challenging and thrilling. It’s a film that doesn’t just reinvent itself as much as deconstruct its entire existence in a way that’s breathtaking and wildly entertaining.

Plaza, doing the best work of her film career yet, plays a writer named Allison who has decided to recharge her creative juices at a gorgeous lakeside home in the Adirondacks that’s owned by Gabe (Abbott) and his pregnant girlfriend Blair (Gadon). From the minute that Allison arrives, Gabe is flirting with her, although one gets the impression that he does that with just about everyone. And it’s probably at least in part because this musician enjoys having another creative soul around, especially since life with Blair hasn’t been great lately. The two passive-aggressively snipe at each other like George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” until the entire trio explodes in a riveting, drunken late-night argument. The three actors are totally committed, and Levine’s dialogue and character work are razor sharp. I would just watch these three sharply-drawn characters for a whole movie. And then “Black Bear” turns.

I wouldn’t spoil anything but the second half of “Black Bear” is really a reflection of the first, and Levine’s work here becomes even more remarkable. Many people will focus on how Levine and Takal’s relationship is influential here with Plaza playing a creative who seems reminiscent of Takal, but the film’s lead actress also dives deep not only into her on-screen persona but the fact that she’s been dating a director/collaborator for years (Jeff Baena, who directed her in “Life After Beth” and “The Little Hours”). She gives the most complex and challenging performance of her entire career, and she's ably supported by Abbott and Gadon. It’s an actor’s showcase for a trio of great performers, but it’s also got something fascinating to say about how artists can weaponize their own relationships in their art. It doesn't quite stick the landing—I wanted it to add up to something a bit more in the final scene—but it's a minor complaint for a film I can't wait to see again. 

Josephine Decker’s “Shirley” works with many of these same themes and draws the comparisons to Albee’s incredible play even more directly. It’s one part Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, one part Shirley Jackson’s style, and one part undiluted Josephine Decker. The writer/director of “Madeline’s Madeline” has made a multi-layered film about how viciously cruel creatives can be, especially to those they claim to love, as well as a commentary on the disposability of young women in the 1950s. More than a biopic of the legendary writer of The Haunting of Hill House, Decker and writer Sarah Gubbins turn Shirley Jackson into a character in one of her novels, the writer who lives on the edge of sanity, and then gives Elisabeth Moss the freedom to give another breathtaking performance. I think the film, especially in its first half, leans into its “asshole creatives” tropes more than some of my colleagues, but the performances are rich and Decker and Gubbins turn “Shirley” into something more interesting when they get surreal. I have to admit that I found the act of watching most of “Shirley” pretty abrasive, but I think maybe that’s part of the point.

“Shirley” opens with two young people literally walking into a trap. Anyone who’s known selfish artists can see what Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) can’t immediately – that living with Shirley Jackson and Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) can only end in, at the most optimistically, a nervous breakdown. Fred is there to work as a teaching assistant to Stanley, and so the young couple literally moves in, where their wide-eyed optimism about the world is crushed by two brilliant yet damaged souls who play mind games and emotional warfare with the flies caught in their web. Stuhlbarg sketches Stanley as a man who lashes out at any threat to his brilliance or esteem, someone who enjoys pushing Fred and demeaning every woman in his orbit, and we start to wonder if the city-wide perception that Shirley is a crazy burden isn’t something he likes to engender. It keeps her in his place and maintains his superiority.

With shaky handheld work and intense score, “Shirley” is designed to unsettle you in much the way that Fred and Rose can never quite find their footing. A subplot about a missing girl who fascinates Shirley into writing her next book about her adds a sense of menace – it’s even implied that Stanley could be responsible – and Decker’s film gets more surreal as it pushes its young characters down the rabbit hole of misogyny and mental illness.

Clearly, there’s a lot to unpack and admire here, but “Shirley” takes a little bit too long to get where it’s going, and I found some of the exaggerated character and style choices distracting more than engaging. I think that Decker is trying to put us in the unsettled space that would be this home, but that can make for a tough, aggressive experience. Still, I want to see it again to dissect how it fits together more. Like a lot of Shirley Jackson’s work, it feels like something that warrants analysis and reflection. 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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