Brigsby Bear (2017) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, brief sexuality, drug material and teen partying
Running Time: 100 min.
Cast: Kyle Mooney, Matt Walsh, Greg Kinnear, Michaela Watkins, Mark Hamill, Ryan Simpkins, Joe Lendeborg Jr., Alexa Demie, Claire Danes, Kate Lyn Sheil, Andy Samberg, Jane Adams, Beck Bennett
Director: Dave McCary
Screenplay: Kevin Costello, Kyle Mooney
Review published August 29, 2017
Kyle Mooney (Zoolander 2, Hello My Name is Doris) co-writes and stars in this comic tale of a man-child named James who grows up in an extremely sheltered existence in a remote bunker in Utah, whose entire life revolves, literally, around his parents, his studies, and a bizarre science fiction/fantasy-based children's' TV show called, "Brigsby Bear Adventures," of which he is the proud possessor of several hundred VHS tapes. Thinking the outside world is toxic and the only real people are his parents and those he chats with online, James is finally freed from his existence only to discover that everything he thought he knew is a sham, including his imposter parents, as well as Brigsby Bear itself. Unable to quite assimilate into a world where Brigsby Bear does not even exist, James sets about changing the world in order that everyone can understand the show, and, in turn, understand him.
Echoes of The Truman Show, Room, Being There, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and a few other high-concept films, though the subject matter here is less universal, and more specific to rabid geekdom. It gives us the premise of something that has often occurred to anyone who has gotten invested into a TV show, novel series, comic book or other property that might have been cancelled before it ever chance to properly end. As with so many who have written fan fiction in order to extend or complete an abandoned but beloved narrative, James wants to conclude all of the stories that he had been told for all of his life, because it means so much to him. He can't live in a world where the Teddy Ruxpin-esque Brigsby Bear is no longer a part of it, and no one has even heard of him save for his imprisoned phony parents.
Brigsby Bear marks the debut of director Dave McCary, a long-time friend and creative collaborator with Mooney, as is co-screenwriter Kevin Costello. Together, they would work on many comedy shorts posted up on YouTube, then a few more for "SNL", where Mooney would become a regular player. This bond definitely informs the narrative here, as we explore young people who find a way to develop a common interest and ability to relate to one another, not only through their shared partaking of James' VHS-ripped episodes of "Brigsby Bear Adventures", but also in their collaboration to make a film that gives the series a proper end. As with many who toy with becoming amateur filmmakers, they draw inspiration from the works they most admire, honing their skills in emulating the very things that made them enjoy visual media over many years.
Kyle Mooney isn't a natural choice to play lead in a film that has so many very good comedic character actors in support, but he does have the 'socially anxious character who doesn't seem to quite fit in despite being able to emulate the lingo around him' down quite well. Though James is an oddball due to his lifelong seclusion and singular interest, we can still relate to him because Mooney plays the character for his humanity over his oddity, lending a respect and warmth to the role that many other actors might have chosen to persistently self-mock for easy laughs. In fact, all of the characters, even the ones who've done bad by stealing the children of another couple, are shown to be sympathetic and relatable, which may detract somewhat from the plausibility of their interactions, but generates the momentum necessary to pursue the larger themes involving the need to preserve our inner children, and the power of storytelling and nostalgia to guide us from adolescence, into adulthood, and into the rest of our lives.
It's certainly no coincidence that Mark Hamill (Star Wars, The Force Awakens) would get a significant role in the film (subtle pun within the film: one of the characters played by Hamill in "Brigsby Bear Adventures" is called 'Sun Snatcher', alluding to the fact that in 'real-life' he is a 'son snatcher'), given that nearly his entire adult life has been spent meeting awkward idol-worshippers like James on a daily basis, who grew up with the Star Wars mythos, and perhaps have played out various scenarios of their own in continuing the Skywalker adventures beyond what we see in the films. Such fan worship goes hand in hand with our innate desire to keep the innocent hopes and dreams of our youth alive, with a certain arrested development in our fondness for those things we were once singularly passionate for, when our minds were just beginning to open up to the possibilities of storytelling, even in a cheesy, childish form. The characters we spent hours with became our friends, and though we've gotten older and moved on, we retain those fond memories. But, this film asks, what if we never made that separation with our childhood obsession? What if we were still entrenched in it into adulthood and it was snatched away? What would we do to keep our only 'friends' alive?
Where the film is lacking somewhat is in the rationale for the parents on both sides to do what they do, especially in the Mark Hamill and Jane Adams characters. Just what is the end game for abducting a baby and creating a TV show to show him and only him for decades? Is there an end game in mind for all of the instructions? The story never delves into the whys very often. The dichotomy between parenting styles is interesting, though, as one seems like a strict religion, imparted perpetually, completely controlled, with messages telling its audience not to be curious or skeptical about any of the knowledge being delivered ("Curiosity is an unnatural emotion!" is a mantra of Brigsby, imparted by James' controlling father). On the other side, James' birth parents care nothing at all about what the previous parents were filling their child's head with, more concerned with the ultra-sheltered James seeming 'normal' to the rest of society and fitting in with his peers. It's something real parents are challenged with in terms of what they think will provide the safe and secure way to raise their kids in the manner in which it will help them the most.
Although this is not a film that will hold up to traditional narrative scrutiny, Brigsby Bear will likely find a cult audience that adores its thematic explorations. Specifically, the lifelong fans of sci-fi/fantasy properties will readily understand how the consumption of creative (even if schlocky) TV shows as kids is something that can greatly form our attitudes later in life, especially as we connect with others who collaborate to share those passions, helping wounds heal in the process and finding some closure on issues felt since childhood.Many of us who are into geek culture today are merely finding ways to keep those childhood memories -- the hopes, dreams and desires we connected with though a work of pure fantasy - alive and with us, like a security blanket, into adulthood.
Thanks to the internet, we are able to form bonds with others who also find that same connection, and some even use this as an opportunity to not only keep those childhood favorite properties alive, but also partake in pushing forward those stories, whether by petitioning to bring back certain properties, or by writing their own fan fiction to share with the kindred. If you're in tune with the wavelength of this film fron the start, you'll find plenty to make you smile as you watch Brigsby Bear.
©2017 Vince Leo