Brigsby Bear: A cynic's nightmare, an optimist's dream

By Jim Slotek

On its premise alone, Brigsby Bear seems like a movie for people who thought Room wasn’t upbeat or quirky enough.

it is, after all, about a young person whose life is stolen by an abductor and who, upon rescue, must cope with the outside world.

Kyle Mooney and Mark Hamill

Kyle Mooney and Mark Hamill

But the creep factor aside (or maybe because of how it’s turned on its head and cleansed of all consequence), the imaginative fable Brigsby Bear was a favourite at both Sundance and Cannes. And it serves notice that co-writer/star Kyle Mooney (a Saturday Night Live featured player during the we-want-to-see-Trump-sketches era) is a talent bigger than that creative box.

In the movie, directed by Dave McCary, Mooney plays James, a bearded t-shirt-wearing twentysomething who looks like a hybrid of a hipster and Napoleon Dynamite. The basis of the childlike vibe he gives off soon becomes apparent when we discover on the movie’s opening that his world is basically a bunker, run by his “parents,” Ted and April (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams).

Raised to believe the outside world is poisonous and unliveable, James’ entire frame of reference is a demented kids’ show called Brigsby Bear, new episodes of which he watches his entire life. Brigsby is an almost Orwellian space-bear, who dispenses advice like, “Curiosity is a negative emotion” and, as the show goes on, tosses things like advanced algebra into the show’s morals.

This, it turns out, is the equivalent of home-schooling by a deranged former kids-show producer who kidnapped his “son” as an infant.

All this is by way of the movie’s first few scenes. Brigsby Bear is actually about James’ liberation by the authorities into the hot gaze of the media and Internet and into the arms of his dazed real family (played by Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins, and Ryan Simpkins as the mortified and surly teen sister Aubrey).

Brigsby Bear is a conundrum for hard-hearted realists. I’m not sure how many changes in tone the script went through en route to the screen, but the result has all guns pointed at a heart-warming, happy ending, even when it seems unlikely.

Example: At James’ very first teenage party, he has his first beer, his first hit of Ecstasy, his first make-out session (with his sister’s best friend, played by Alexa Demie), and his first pass-out experience on a floor.

This could be a recipe for things to go terribly wrong. Instead, it’s an introduction to Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), a sci-fi/fantasy geek and wannabe filmmaker who looks at James’ VHS tapes of Brigsby (the elaborate charade produced by his fake dad), and decides they should make a movie out of it. Thus, is James introduced to digital video technology and a magical thing called Google (his polite enquiries in the search engine are quite endearing).

Kyle Mooney as James as Brigsby

Kyle Mooney as James as Brigsby

Also in James’ corner is Det. Vogel (Greg Kinnear), the world’s most understanding cop, who smuggles said VHSes and even Brigsby’s puppet costume out of the evidence locker and accesses his long-dormant acting dreams to accept a role.

There is so much redemption in this movie, even the abductor Ted gets something like absolution.

As it happens, I am not so hard-hearted that I couldn’t give myself over to the determinedly upbeat spirit of the movie. (Although it could have used a little more drama. Even James’ brief stint in a psychiatric ward only serves to introduce him to yet another new best friend, played by Andy Samberg.)

And full marks go to the inventiveness that’s gone into Brigsby’s world. It’s as if the detail-mindedness of genre and fantasy fandom were morphed with the ethos of children’s TV. The villain is a celestial body with an evil face, like a Teletubbies’ nightmare. And Brigsby’s best friends are super-powered twins (played by a rural waitress who’d been told over the years that she was acting in “a show for Canadian public television”).

This is one weird movie. But in a landscape of Hollywood productions that are dubiously touted as “feel-good,” Brigsby Bear is undeniably that.

Brigsby Bear. Directed by Dave McCary. Starring Kyle Mooney, Greg Kinnear, Mark Hamill. Opens Friday in Toronto at Cineplex Yonge-Dundas and in Vancouver at International Village.

Jim Slotek

Jim Slotek is a former Toronto Sun columnist, movie critic, TV critic and comedy beat reporter. He’s been a scriptwriter for the NHL Awards, Gemini Awards and documentaries, and was nominated for a Gemini Award for comedy writing on a special (the NHL Awards). Prior to the Sun, he worked at the Ottawa Citizen as an entertainment reporter.