Brigsby Bear Review
There are times when you can smell a festival film a mile away, and Brigsby Bear arrives with a distinctive whiff attached to it. Director Dave McCary’s film was a big hit at Sundance earlier in the year and one look at the synopsis and a few images might start those eyes rolling into the back of your head. The film is certainly guilty of playing the sentimentality card a little too often but thanks to Kyle Mooney’s performance these moments largely feel earned and genuine. It might not be able to shake off its ‘quirky’ tag given its odd storyline but it has a warm heart that will win most people over.
Quite unexpectedly, the opening act brings with it some surprisingly dark undertones. James (Mooney) lives at home with parents Ted (a Skywalker bearded Mark Hamill) and Jane (April Mitchum). He's a dutiful son who can’t wait to finish his chores for the day so he can sit down in front of his favourite TV show, Brigsby Bear Adventures. His bedroom is covered in Brigsby paraphernalia and the programme's retro 80s sci-fi aesthetic belies the life lessons James learns from the big bear and his friends. But not everything is quite what it seems in this happy little set-up. Clues start to reveal how strange this family life really is, and when the police suddenly raid their underground compound, James is ripped out of a life he has known for almost three decades.
It’s certainly a curious beginning to the film but McCary chooses not to dwell on the reasons why or the deeper psychological issues you’d expect this to create. Even though James has been pushed out into the world at large, Brigsby Bear has no interest in playing the reality card. As he comes to grips with the world and the simple act of being able to breathe outside without a gas mask, he refuses to admit the Brigsby show was created by his father solely for his entertainment. The film never makes the idea explicit but this could be viewed as a metaphor for how the obsessiveness of geek culture can stunt adulthood in favour of burrowing deeper into childhood fantasies. If that is the case then McCary is also willing to concede the creativity of these worlds can be equally as important to our personal development, an idea that underpins James’ journey to find himself in his new life.
Crucial to making all of this glue together is the performance by Kyle Mooney. Taking on the role of a man-child is always challenging because it can so easily over-emphasise the character's naivety and happily pick the lowest hanging fruit from the comedy tree. Mooney seems acutely aware of this fact and even though James refuses to let go of a kids TV show, there’s a sweet sincerity that makes his ludicrous plight feel believable. Hamill’s appearance is short and brief but he shows a few more acting chops than expected, while Greg Kinnear pops up throughout the story as a good natured cop won over by James’ new found sense of purpose.
How deeply invested you are with James’ new life will determine how prepared you are to overlook the rather sickly sweet ending. It will either raise a few moans and groans, or even a little wetness in the eye (ahem). Aside from the bizarre idea that drives the plot forward, it’s also a love letter of sorts addressed to the artistic nature infused in all of us to varying degrees. Brigsby Bear is not quite as whimsical as it seems and McCary and Mooney have put together a funny, warm and thoughtful story that speaks to a time where clinging onto our childhood seems preferable to dealing with the harshness of reality.