In the limited pantheon of released-into-the-world-after-spending-years-in-a-bunker movies, Kyle Mooney’s Brigsby Bear is more Blast from the Past than Room. That is to say, it celebrates its central character’s detachment from reality and social convention rather than examining the prolonged isolation for obvious dramatic depth. Of course, unlike the late 90s mainstream rom-com stylings of Blast from the Past, Brigsy Bear goes about telling its story in such a supremely 2017 indie comedy way. This is, after all, a movie in which a man attempts to film the final episode of his favorite children’s TV show – a TV show that never actually existed (um, it’s complicated). The filmmakers could have done so much more with their premise, but that was never their goal and that’s actually okay.
The plot, hatched by Mooney (who stars and writes) and childhood friends Kevin Costello (who co-writes) and Dave McCary (who directs), centers on good-natured, floppy haired, twentysomething James. Abducted at a young age by scientists/part-time toy developers (Jane Adams and an electric Mark Hamill), James is raised in an underground home, believing his captors to be his parents and the outside world to be plagued with a killer gas. Much to his dismay, they want him to start doing more with his time than simply write about his favorite TV show, the very 80s-esque educational children’s program Brigsby Bear about, well, a bear (voiced by Hamill), evil moon monster (also voiced by Hamill), magical twin sisters and quadratic equations.
That’s because Brigsby Bear is just something James’ “parents” made specifically for him out of a nearby hanger, apparently for the purpose of covertly teaching him about math and science in the hopes of turning him into a savant who…actually, the film doesn’t really care why the parents do it. Neither, in the end, does James. That Brigsby Bear only ever had an audience of one doesn’t matter to him. In fact, his certainty in the rules of Brigsby’s fictional universe provides much-needed comfort and structure once he’s rescued from the bunker and returned to his actual family, all of whom have no real idea how to talk to him.
Out of the bunker, James’ journey could easily go in darker directions. It never does. Apart from one heated moment where he briefly and quite accidentally admits that the story in the new Brigsby script he’s written might just be a metaphor for his trauma, the film sees fit to mostly have him amiably make his way through therapy sessions and long overdue rite-of-passage moments with his younger teenage sister’s friends. The longer it goes on and the more people rally around his repeatedly stated intentions to make one last Brigsby episode the more you start to get a Lars and the Real Girl/Harvey feel. By the end, when it turns into an ode to the power of cinema and art of creation you’ve either been won over by the film’s idiosyncratic charm by that point or you haven’t.
The performances sell the tone well, especially Mooney’s endearing aloofness and Hamill’s intriguing mix of regret and genuine affection and hope for his “son.” The love that Mooney and his friends clearly have for the type of children’s shows that inspired the story comes through via fantastic recreations, right down to the faded VHS quality, hamfisted plotting and amateurish effects.
I still would have liked something a little deeper, and certain character turns didn’t totally work for me (e.g., Greg Kinnear plays a cop who starts giving James the confiscated Brigsby props for the flimsiest of reasons). But Tay’s Letterboxd review, highlighted in the sites “2017 Year in Review” yesterday, says it best:
maybe my taste dictates that i might’ve wanted [Brigsby Bear] to be darker, or to be more psychologically inquisitive and investigative, but this is really just… a lovely and thoughtful and charming movie. it’s narrative may be a bit too expected, but ultimately it culminates to be something that really is just kind. i will take kindness any day, and i will take championing art and creation any day, too, over just about anything else.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Brigsby Bear is simple, weird, imperfect, and kind.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- Watch the post-screening Q&A featured on the DVD for a fascinating amount of hemming and hawing when a female critic in the audience asks Mooney and pals why they saw fit to [SPOILER] make Jane Adams’ largely voiceless character the bad guy and Mark Hamill the sympathetic one who just went with it and truly loved James. Sensing they haven’t done her question justice, they each keep coming back to it throughout the rest of the Q&A and still don’t provide a satisfying explanation.
- The Lonely Island guys served as producers on this, which means there is a [SPOILER] brief cameo from Andy Samberg.
CRITICAL CONSENSUS RIGHT NOW
What about you? Have you seen Brigsby Bear? Let me know in the comments.