Director: Dave McCary
Screenplay: Kyle Mooney, Kevin Costello
Starring: Kyle Mooney, Claire Danes, Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear, Andy Samberg, Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Chance Crimin
Runtime: 97 Minutes
Brigsby Bear is an odd little indie movie that serves as the directorial debut of Saturday Night Live director Dave McCary. It’s odd in that it feels more like a compilation of ideas and neat comedy sketch material than it does as a motion picture, but it's concise and enjoyable enough that it’s hard to notice that while it's being watched.
Beginning like a warped darkly comic take on Room, the film sees James Pope (Kyle Mooney) being brought out of the captivity of Ted and April Mitchum (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) after being abducted as a child. His adjustment to the real world after his entrapment is stalled by the fact that he can no longer watch his favourite show Brigsby Bear; a form of educational children’s television produced by the Mitchum’s exclusively for James.
His solution is to finish the story and adventures of his favourite anthropomorphic bear by making a movie with his new friends and family members, while his parents (Michaela Watkins and Matt Walsh) grow increasingly worried about his state of mind and delayed development.
But the abduction storyline is merely the jumping off platform, and it’s ultimately an uplifting and optimistic endeavour and a study of the will of individuals under such circumstance to proceed into the unknown through their own methods. The making of the movie proves a cathartic experience for James, even if he never really seems to come to terms with the full extent of the horror he’s been in.
But even under the duress that it may cause to observers, James was never treated badly by the Mitchum’s as they created a fantastical world around and for him, even though the insidious forms of brainwashing in the fictional show reveal themselves in stark moments of dark comedy.
Even though Brigsby is a form of entrapment, where every facet of his being and character has been constructed to keep him in check, it has taken on something much more for James in a similar way to how nostalgia can alter the perceptions of mature individuals to their loves of the past. They are a path in our memories back to a simpler and more comforting time, and much like the Transformers the makeshift makeup on-the-spot storytelling has formed an intense continuity and mythology in James’ mind of something far richer and more symbolic than those producing the show originally intended.
This is what happens as these products take on a life of their own in peoples imaginations, and the moments where the film shines in its weirdness is in depicting the show with all the faulty retro stylings and video production values of a low-rent public service broadcast series like The Adventures of Prayer Bear. It’s very well realised and occasionally surreal in a kind of Mighty Boosh style and by far and away they’re the highlights of the movie.
There are a few unexplained details in the storytelling that rely too often on coincidence, and maybe some of the family drama could be more fleshed out – as well as a distracting cameo from producer Andy Samberg late in the game – but the performances are really great from the cast. Kyle Mooney is a likable presence filled with the wide-eyed wonder of a child. Greg Kinnear’s Detective Vogel is fun when he’s onscreen, as is a terrific turn from Mark Hamill in a role that makes the use of his vocal abilities and fatherly warmth.
Brigsby Bear might be a little too hip, twee or tonally strange for many but it will definitely find a fan base amongst lovers of cult and pop cultural oddities in media. You kind of wish we knew more about the lore of Brigsby’s universe, but maybe that’s why the spell of the show works so well, as well as its lovingly created construction and influences. It’s a celebration of fan culture that rarely feels mawkish and has a lot of heart to it.