This article contains spoilers for the film “Cocaine Bear.”
In Elizabeth Banks’ new, gloriously violent and bat-shit crazy gem “Cocaine Bear,” the plot is simple: a black bear accidentally swallows several pounds of cocaine. Chaos ensues.
The result is a surprisingly funny explosion of characters chasing, hunting and running for their lives from Cocaine Bear before the ending lands: in the final scenes, the black bear is revealed as a mama bear protecting her cubs.
For a moment, Cocaine Bear is humanized as more than an apex predator on a coke high; we feel a gut-punch through the farce and fleetingly pity this creature that humans ultimately brutalized. Cocaine Bear not only becomes a mother; she becomes human.
The film is a triumph for director Elizabeth Banks, who has struggled to find her feminist-comedy footing since the “Pitch Perfect” franchise fizzled out. After trudging through box-office bomb “Charlie’s Angels,” which I found delightful, she now emerges confidently with a movie that embraces what it is and nothing more.
“Cocaine Bear” is a romp. Yet underneath the limb-ripping camp, “Cocaine Bear” is also a statement about spectatorship and our entitlement to it: Cocaine Bear didn’t choose to be an international media sensation or the antagonist of a man vs. nature storyline in the frenzied world where “Cocaine Bear” is set. She was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and yet here she is: the star of the movie and the star of the world she lives in, when ultimately, she just wants to protect her cubs.
Strangely enough, the black bear has become canonized in feminist media as a symbol of this sort of exploitation: Aubrey Plaza’s 2020 lesser-known quarantine black comedy “Black Bear” packs the same punch. A dazzling, mysterious upstate-cabin-in-the-woods psychological thriller about the emotionally abusive turbulence of show business, “Black Bear” asks how far is too far into that perfect shot. In “Black Bear,” the audience is implicated: we must reconcile with our own consumption of female pain as Plaza, an actress, plays an actress in a movie inside a movie.
“Black Bear” unfolds in two parts: The first posits Plaza as a breezy, mysterious actress and director visiting a couple in their cabin in the woods to shoot her movie, and she ultimately becomes an agent in their relationship’s exaggerated, theatricalized demise. The whole premise feels a little scripted, the writing too stiff, and we wonder if this just isn’t a great movie. Yet here comes part two: This time, the roles have been changed, and the husband is now the director, Plaza is the wife and a bright-eyed Sarah Gadon is the other woman, the fresh-faced ingénue. We realize that this is the behind-the-scenes of part one, a movie inside a movie.
Plaza slowly unravels into an animalistic train wreck as her husband pushes her to the brink to perform; she chugs hard liquor, rolls around and sings on the floor and refuses to wear clothes. In the final scene, she calmly embraces the black bear that has been lurking in the woods. Here, the black bear becomes a comforting symbol of liberation: Plaza physically turns away from her cheating husband and the chaotic, drug-fueled movie set lurching around her to embrace this black bear.
Like the freedom in the “Black Bear” breakdown, there’s liberation in Cocaine Bear’s rampage, but it’s undercut by the tragedy that pushed her to this point. Cocaine Bear hunts, slaughters and disembowels, but not because she’s inherently violent; instead, she’s simply a mama bear who has ingested massive amounts of cocaine.
How much can we celebrate a woman’s “Yellow Wallpaper” moment when we watched every step of her getting pushed to the brink? Ultimately, both “Cocaine Bear” and “Black Bear” tell stories rooted in truth: there’s a reason for women “going crazy.” And we can’t celebrate this liberation without reconciling with the man-made imprisonment that pushed them there.
Bear stories allow us an outlet for female, animalistic rage. And since “Cocaine Bear” is a funny movie, and Plaza successfully manages to translate her sardonic wit into the horror drama, we can and should embrace the fun. But we need to remember the tragedy that landed us here.
Eliza Powers PO ’25 is from New Orleans, Louisiana. She loves Gracie Abrams, “The Bachelor” and matching pajama sets.