Brigsby Bear (2017)

Brigsby Bear first published by Sight & Sound, February 2018

Review: Meet Brigsby: an ursine inter-dimensional adventurer whose endless cosmic clashes with the villainous Sun Snatcher – and accompanying lessons in maths, hygiene and ethics – are the subject of the TV show that bears his name, and that James (writer Kyle Mooney) has been watching obsessively on VHS for as long as he can remember. Now in his mid twenties, but somewhat arrested in his development, James is the ultimate fanboy, his bedroom festooned with Brigsby paraphernalia, and his every online conversation (on his ancient computer) devoted to speculations about the more arcane intricacies of Brisgby plotting.

Cheesily derivative and hilariously didactic, this Eighties-style kids show is a formative fantasy twice over: first, it has shaped housebound James’ education and character over the two and a half decades he has spent with parents Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams), bunkered in the desert to protect him from the apocalyptic toxins outside; second, it is, much like James’ life, a fiction, painstakingly – lovingly, even – crafted each week by Ted for James alone, as are the interlocutors on the Brigsby Bear forum with whom James chats daily. All this is designed to keep James engaged and distracted – if incurious – from the fact that Ted and April are not his parents, but his long-term abductors, and that everything in his hermetic little universe is a big lie. One FBI raid later, though, and our naïve hero is reintroduced to his real father Greg (Matt Walsh), mother Louise (Michaela Watkins), teen sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins) and the real world of contemporary America.

If the set-up here is familiar from the captive horrors of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), Bad Boy Bubby (1993), Dogtooth (2009), Miss Violence (2013) and Room (2015), the screenplay of Mooney and co-writer Kevin Costello is so good-natured and generous towards all its characters that even James’ captors are depicted as lovably misguided fools rather than exploitative abusers. Brigsby Bear is so much a part of James that his quest to find a place for himself in the world naturally involves him creating his own home-made Brigsby movie, with help from Aubrey’s friends, from Greg Kinnear’s friendly police detective (and actor manqué), and eventually from his own family. The DIY sci-fi epic that results is a way for James both to bring a seemingly never-ending chapter in his life to a close, and to forge new connections and a new universe for himself – and it also reflects the kind of home movies that Mooney, Costello and first-time feature director Dave McCary (all Saturday Night Live veterans) have been making together since their teens. This view of filmmaking itself as both communal experience and means to creative self-expression evokes the Capra-esque spirit of Be Kind Rewind (2008), transforming James’ own peculiar adventures into something genuinely affectionate and sweetly humane. Oddball James may stand out, but by emerging bleary-eyed into an age where nerdishness and nostalgia rule, he also fits right in – and is hard not to love.

Synopsis: Burnett County, America. James lives in a desert bunker with his father Ted and mother April, and obsessively watches episodes, delivered weekly on VHS, of children’s sci-fi adventure Brigsby Bear. The FBI raid the house and arrest Ted and April, who are not in fact James’ parents, but the couple who abducted him as a baby. Ted made Brigsby Bear as entertainment, education and brainwashing for James’ eyes only, recruiting local waitress Whitney to play the two Smiles sisters. Helped by Detective Vogel and the psychiatrist Emily, James moves in with his real parents Greg and Louise and teen sister Aubrey.

James meets Aubrey’s friend Spencer at a party, and the two agree to make a film that will complete Brigsby’s adventures. Soon they are joined by Aubrey’s other friends Meredith and Logan, and even Aubrey herself starts warming to James – but when James’ exploding prop attracts police attention, his parents grow concerned that the Brigsby film is not helping James readjust to his new life. James steals their car and heads out to the bunker, on the way back chancing upon Whitney. Arrested, he is sent to a mental institution. Spencer shows Greg and Louise footage of James’ pleasure in making the film. Helped by inmate Eric, James escapes the institution, and finds his family and friends turning the garage into a film set for his return. James asks Ted (in prison) to record Brigsby’s voice. The film première is a success.

© Anton Bitel