REVIEW: Brigsby Bear [2017]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 100 minutes | Release Date: July 28th, 2017 (USA)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director(s): Dave McCary
Writer(s): Kevin Costello & Kyle Mooney

“Prophecy is meaningless. Trust only your familial unit.”

The best films are those that come out of nowhere and should be viewed as such. Seriously. Stop reading and go see Brigsby Bear yourself because the less you know about it the better. That’s not to say its conceit is a spoiler—its complete shift in perspective and environment occurs barely fifteen minutes in and proves crucial as the impetus for the entire plot—but I was glad I was completely unaware. I read the description about how the film deals with a kids’ TV program produced for an audience of one before abruptly going off the air and thought, “How’s that going to work?” The filmmakers do provide an ingenious reason through the introduction of a hermetically sealed post-apocalyptic world, but they also promptly topple it with another.

It’s this second reason—the truth—that I won’t say. I could write *Spoilers* up top and just go crazy with details, but that would mean I think it’s okay to enter knowing what’s wrong with the home the Mitchums (Mark Hamill‘s Ted and Jane Adams‘ April) have created for their son James (Kyle Mooney). However, I vehemently don’t believe that and want to be very careful about what I share. It’s not like you need to know the full premise to understand why Brigsby Bear is so wonderfully charming, hopeful, inspiring, and inherently dark despite it all anyway. It’s good enough to merely accept that a low-fi public access fantasy adventure starring the titular animatronic bear is James’ absolute everything. And yes, it is forcibly taken away.

What are the ramifications of such an act? What happens when a twenty-five year old who’s literally been educated on school subjects and intrinsic human imperatives like family and friends through a single source suddenly becomes aware of a larger world? It’s not simply a matter of learning to adhere what he knows to a new setting now that his reference point—”Brigsby Bear Adventures”—proves a complete non-entity outside the Mitchum residence. He must reform his entire identity, reconciling past and present in a way his mind simply cannot assimilate overnight as he’s thrust into the arms of a new family (the Popes played by Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, and Ryan Simpkins as Greg, Louise, and sister Aubrey respectively). Conversely, they must adjust to his peculiar obsession.

So there’s a learning curve for everyone—with help from well-meaning yet over-zealous psychiatrist Emily (Claire Danes) and genuinely well-meaning Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear)—as they acknowledge the elephant in the room that is Brigsby. To James it’s a beacon of familiarity to grab onto when times are tough while the Popes see it as a reminder of two-plus decades of turmoil forever keeping him at arm’s length. But just as this fictional character helped James grow into a kind, intelligent, and empathetic young man, it can also teach these outsiders how to open themselves up to compromise and understanding during some impossible circumstances of emotional upheaval. Replace fear with wonder and watch this hero of the universe vanquish its foes and strengthen the bonds of pure love.

It’s weird looking back that Emily would be such an ardent supporter of cutting this large piece of James’ soul out like a cancer rather than allow him to achieve closure by finishing its chapter of his life, but the choice does help first-time feature screenwriters Mooney and Kevin Costello shore up their plot. They make her unyielding as a quasi antagonist—the closest thing to one the film has besides Brigsby’s fictitious arch-nemesis—so a fracture can form between James and the Popes that the future can mend. It’s not ideal, but it works to suppose Brigsby is a harmful remembrance rather than cathartic imperative. What Emily doesn’t know is that this bear is an outlet for James, a creative forum to counter his otherwise analytically-based adolescence.

And it can be that for everyone too. It can be the love-line the Popes need for James to feel safe. It can inspire new friends like Meredith (Alexa Demie) and Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) to embrace a drive within them that goes beyond teenage angst and popularity. Heck, Brigsby might even be poised to take the world by storm as a legitimate powerhouse in sci-fi fantasy education. This bear may be a human-sized Teddy Ruxpin marred by tragedy, but he can be reclaimed by the pure of heart if only those who’ve forgotten what it meant to feel safe and secure during the pre-9/11, VHS-era remember. Creative dreams and artistic lives aren’t just the flights of fancy of youth. No one should compromise his/her imagination for pragmatism.

As for that thing I won’t mention: the way the film handles it could be considered dangerously flippant. People could say Mooney and Costello wrongly use a very serious dramatic arc for laughs. But in my opinion they don’t disrespect the lives of people who’ve experienced similar strife by using it to augment their message. I personally felt a bit uncomfortable with how easily some characters gloss over the severity of the situation, but I think director Dave McCary in execution and Mooney in performance lend enough heart to let that dark comedy succeed. With that said, it’s going to prove a divisive detail for some. Brigsby Bear shares more in common thematically with Death to Smoochy than just plush children’s characters in that regard (albeit much warmer).

I loved it. The stranger in a strange land shtick lands thanks to Mooney’s wonderfully authentic child-like awkwardness and innocence. The production value on recreating an 80s public access look with VHS tracking is impeccable. And how a community literally rallies around a young man in need (no matter the twenty-first century gaze steeped in vicarious enjoyment through others’ suffering that’s utilized) is commendable. It’s all a really messed up situation that finds charm in its eccentric yet heartfelt tale of empathetic connection—one the filmmakers (Mooney and McCary are alums of sketch comedy troupe Good Neighbor as well as currently on staff at “Saturday Night Live”) never ruin by feeling a need to handle their premise with kid gloves. They let humor be their antidote to tragedy.

[1] Kyle Mooney as James © Brigsby Bear Movie, LLC., Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[2] Left to right: Kate Lyn Sheil as Arielle Smiles/Nina and Kyle Mooney as James © Brigsby Bear Movie, LLC., Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[3] Mark Hamill as Ted © Brigsby Bear Movie, LLC., Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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