After just coming off my series of reviews on the filmography of Xavier Dolan, I needed something with a slight change of pace for my review this week. I sought something that is thematically deep and executed with artistic grace, but also unencumbered by stylistic hang-ups that can dog Dolan’s films. Based on what I was seeking, a friend recommended I check out Kim Nguyen’s most recent feature from 2016, Two Lovers and a Bear, which certainly proved to be an interestingly vicarious experience.
Based in the small isolated town of Apex, which is located in the remote regions of northeast Canada, the film follows the tale of the eponymous lovers Roman (Dane DeHaan) and Lucy (Tatiana Maslany). Both have troubled pasts, and rely heavily upon one another for support when they need it, but when Lucy discovers she has been accepted into a degree program in a university down south, she decides to leave the community. Lucy asks Roman to go with her, who is initially resistant (to the point of near suicide), but he eventually agrees, and from there the two must journey through the cold unforgiving land to start their new life together.
When I was studying the art of screenwriting a while back, I encountered many lessons from the late and great Syd Field that have been forever etched into my mind. One such lesson from Field, who is essentially the godfather of how screenwriting is taught today, is simply “Know your characters.” Nguyen conveys an intimate understanding of his characters not only in the way he has written them, but also in the ways his superbly nuanced direction complements the way he has written them. Even an early sex scene in the film is inserted not for the sake of titillation (something all too common in modern filmmaking), but to drive the development of his two main characters with intimate sincerity. I found myself contemplating the trials and tribulations of Roman and Lucy for days after watching the film, which to me is always a sign of a film’s emotional resonance.
However, Field also noted that a screenwriter should stay true to the story they are telling, and I’m afraid this is where Nguyen falls short at times. You see, the film builds tension around the characters by placing them in peril on several occasions, which in one sense proves to be effective because, as mentioned, we already care a great deal about the characters. The problem, though, is that with such outstanding character building, Nguyen should not have felt the need to build so much tension around the characters with certain plot threads that felt a little out of place. It is as if Nguyen felt he did not have enough steam to drive the drama between the Roman and Lucy, which is not the case, and instead offers up some filler for the sake of pacing. This is particularly evident in the scene where the two lovers seek shelter in an abandoned military base, which felt more like the opening to a horror film, instead of the ongoing struggles of two individuals who are as troubled as they are madly in love, which to me is far more compelling.
What I imagine has proven to be even more divisive, though, is how Nguyen has chosen to handle the bear that mentioned in the title. To cut a long story short, Roman can speak with bears, something that Nguyen goes out of his way to note is not (all) in Roman’s head, as others witness him speaking with a polar bear that appears on several occasions.
Whatever the case, this is not a decision that a director like Nguyen makes lightly or without meaning, yet those who are unfamiliar with the ways of magic realism (I would recommend looking it up, if you feel so inclined) might nonetheless find the presence of a talking bear to be off-putting. But for me, it is something that will bring me back to this thematically complex film again, seeking further meaning in the deliberately philosophical and interspersed interactions Roman has with the bear, all the while taking another emotionally transformative journey with these two endearing characters.