Dzenana Vucic | 24/10/2017
Brigsby Bear is the kind of quirky indie dramedy that we’re used to, with a little added zest. It’s sweet, charming and just a tad absurd, with a digestible feel-good take away.
The story follows James (Kyle Mooney, of Saturday Night Live fame) as he is introduced to present-day America after twenty-five years in a bunker somewhere in the desert. His bunker parents April (Jane Adams) and Ted (Mark Hamill) have raised him on a regime of handshaking dinners, maths and a weird live-action children’s show called ‘Brigsby Bear’.
Naturally, his re-introduction to the world and his original family (Matt Walsh, Louise-Michaela Watkins and Ryan Simkins) is awkward and confusing – the kid’s been kept away from real social interaction for all of his life, and he has a hard time coping with his new life, and most especially with the fact that Brigsby Bear and the Smiles Sisters, the show that kept him entertained throughout his isolation, was an elaborate fake, created by bunker-dad Ted not only as an entertainment device, but also to provide James with moral lessons.
While Brigsby Bear does (somewhat blithely) fall into the trap of presenting fandom in its usual context of social isolation and general weirdness, it is nonetheless a sweet celebration of its pleasures and pitfalls – a point brilliantly underscored by the presence of Mark Hamill – and speaks to the creativity and sense of belonging that hardcore fanning can produce. James is obsessed (think t-shirts, every episode on VHS, posters, bedsheets and more), and while those around him don’t understand his passion (a situation well-understood by cos-players, fanfic writers and medieval fair goers), there’s no doubting the originality and beauty of what his obsession produces.
The film is also a wonderful consideration of the long-term impact of the children’s shows we grew up on (think Barney and Friends, Teletubbies, and Humphrey the Bear). Brigsby Bear is these shows combined and injected with steroids, a fascinating and surreal universe full of inter-galactic travel and maths lessons. A blend of moral and educational messaging, the show is littered with lines like ‘curiosity is an unnatural emotion’ and ‘prophecy is meaningless, only trust your family unit!’ as well as reminders to do your chores. It’s a clever point about the ways that children’s programming can indoctrinate and trap us in systems of thought, much like James was trapped underground.
The show is fake, created for the sole purpose of keeping James content and compliant, and the clear references to other children’s programming makes the film’s commentary on how the media helps raise children fairly obvious. Perhaps less obviously, the film also celebrates how these shows can connect us and there is a beautiful moment when James, becoming impassioned in a defence of Brigsby, (wrongly) points out that people around the world watch it and are connected.
Finally, Brigsby Bear also has a lot to say about how we fashion a sense of belonging, a place of our own, in fandoms, in families and in friendships. After finding out that Brigsby Bear isn’t real, James decides to make a movie to conclude the show and wrap things up. He is joined in this by a few new friends including (handily) an amateur filmmaker, Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), his sister Aubrey (Simpkins), the friendly and rule-breaking detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) and eventually, his original parents. At this point, the film loses some of its originality to familiar plotting and the scenes of friendly film-making border on the saccharine, but there’s certainly something to be said for a cinematic portrayal of kindness and inclusion as the default human response to oddness.
The script was written by Kyle Mooney and Kevin Costello and directed by Dave McCary, The three are childhood friends (they met in seventh grade) and have all been involved in comedy together, on SNL or as part of the comedy troupe Good Neighbour, which explains why there are strange cameos from Nick Rutherford (as an overzealous and sorta-rude fan) and Beck Bennett (as a cop investigating the bunker). Neither role was especially important or well-written and here it feels like the casting was based more on friend-pleasing than anything else.
Mooney stands out markedly in this film, somehow giving deadpan nuance and adding an emotional weight to a role that could easily be played too frivolously. He is sincere, guileless and awkward in a way that manages to avoid evoking pity. While his character does lean a bit too heavily on playfully awkward assumptions and misunderstandings about the real world, and at times there doesn’t seem to be much sense to why he would think certain things (for example, that you’d need to get married after having sex), the fact that so little of his life in the bunker and the motives of his bunker parents is revealed means that these moments don’t jar too badly.
James’ myopic self-involvement (he is disturbingly unable to grasp the significance of what happened and the wrongs done to himself and his family), is another clever work-around, enabling the writers to leave the secondary characters almost completely 2D. This might frustrate some who might be interested in the pain James’ original family might be experiencing, or the reasoning behind his bunker-parents’ decision, but it is entirely in-keeping with how flippantly James himself regards the situation. The only place where this reasoning cracks is in the strange 180 degree turn from unenthusiastic little sister to BF performed by Aubrey.
Given the build-up, the film’s ending is somewhat bland and not entirely new or unexpected. Despite this, the relative scarcity of films that opt for happiness rather than tragedy and its gentle humour mean that it’s well worth its 97 minute run time.