The title Two Lovers and a Bear, while there are indeed two lovers and a bear in the film, comes from a joke that Lucy (Tatiana Maslany) tells her lover, Roman (Dane DeHaan). It’s a bad joke, but it’s a great bad joke. Their playful joking, making one another smile and laugh, is so charming that it doesn’t matter that the joke is bad. This is nearly how I feel about the film as a whole.
Roman and Lucy live about as close to the North Pole as one can live, seeking refuge from dark pasts in remote Apex, Canada. The couple are codependent, equal parts vital and ruinous, and protect one another from the abuses in their past. As soon as the film shows how much the two characters need one another, Lucy tells Roman that she has been accepted into a biology program “down South.” She leaves in two weeks. Roman spirals, binging on alcohol and drugs, and has bottomed out when the sheriff ships him off to rehab. Once he gets out the two decide to run away from everything and spend time by themselves.
The actors both do a wonderful job of showing the love, fear, lust, sadness, and inner turmoil that the characters continuously experience. The pure joy that Lucy and Roman experience together, the panic attacks induced by Lucy’s memories, and Roman’s complete breakdown give the actors plenty of chances to go all-out with their performances, and they do not fall short. These performances build empathy with the characters, and the audience feels the characters’ relationship and more closely understands the motives behind their decisions.
Roman and Lucy clutch desperately onto the idea that their love is enough to sustain them. They can support one another through almost everything, but Nguyen will completely undercut this notion. The finale of the film is equally heartwarming and heartbreaking. The performances of Maslany and DeHaan peak as the characters’ walls are broken down and their emotions are unleashed. In the final moments, it’s easy to see the effect these characters have on each other. They surely wish for more time together, and any more time would add to an emotional, affecting film. The final shot is chilling and stunning because of how much the characters have invested in one another and how much the audience will have too.
On the other side of the camera, Nguyen makes the most of the film’s beautiful Arctic setting, frequently cutting to wide shots that capture huge swaths of the expanse. But while Nguyen demonstrates precise control in using the camera to support the action, the film’s story and tone feel less assured. Due to repeated changes in style, the film plays at times like a teen romance, later like a surreal comedy, and at other times like a horror film. Nguyen cannot quite make scenes where leads stare longingly at each other fit with the adrenaline rush of moments that invoke 127 Hours, which then jam into a Cold War Era bunker turned haunted house. While each scene may work well alone, as a whole the film feels forced together, and the narrative fails to smooth things over. The plot relies too heavily on elements that feel generic or too convenient to seem plausible. The characters feel deeply rooted in truth, but the rest of the film does not take advantage of these characters.