In ‘Brigsby Bear’, a man in his mid-20s finds out that his entire existence has been a lie. The people he calls Mum and Dad are really his abductors. The protective bunker that he calls his home is really his prison. The television show that he watches obsessively is really a homemade blend of propaganda and educational tool. In its bizarre clash of naivety and cynicism, all set against an unusual but sweet coming-of-age tale, ‘Brigsby Bear’ is a unique and winning film.
James (Kyle Mooney) has lived in an underground bunker his entire life, convinced that the outside world is a toxic wasteland. His “parents”, Ted (Mark Hamill, making his contentious character paradoxically likable) and April (Jane Adams), are academics, home-schooling James so that he can help them solve a fabled mathematical conjecture. James’ life has a defined rhythm – each day, he completes his chores, participates in physical conditioning and sits through his lessons, before sitting down to compulsively rewatch and analyse any of the 734 episodes of ‘Brigsby Bear Adventures’ that Ted gets delivered on VHS tapes from the outside world. This show-within-a-movie is a fantastic blend of ‘Star Trek’-esque intergalactic adventures, replete with dense lore and DIY production value, and ‘Play School’ style daily lessons, though Brigsby’s grasp and propagation of extremely complex maths would fly well over the heads of most tykes.
One day, the FBI descends on the family’s bunker, arresting Ted and April and liberating James. They take James to a local police station, where Midwest cop Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear, terrific) explains that Ted and April were not his real parents, and that much of James’ understanding of the world is utterly off the mark. Before long, Vogel lets James go home with his birth parents, Greg (Matt Walsh) and Louise (Michaela Watkins), and his sister, Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins). One has to suspend some disbelief that such an emotionally shocking and deeply revelatory transition could ever take place quite so quickly or without the intervention of counselling, but James’ biggest struggle is yet to come.
Mooney, also responsible for the film’s story and a co-writer too, is best known for his work as a performer on U.S. sketch show ‘Saturday Night Live’. His performance in ‘Brigsby Bear’ is a quiet revelation. As James, he organically binds his trademark awkward presence to a dramatic character with some serious baggage to work through. Mooney’s sweetness as James leaves a deep impression. The character’s naivety makes sense for a man raised in a hole in the ground, but the screenplay never forgets the humour in his fish out of water status either. During their first interview, Detective Vogel asks James if Ted and April ever “touched him” – the implication is clear. James, perfectly mirroring the gravity of Greg Kinnear’s delivery, says that they did. When asked to elaborate, James demonstrates by clasping Vogel by the hand, shaking it, and mimicking Ted – “Great job on your studies, James.” It makes light of the tragedy experienced by Greg and Louise and of the complete deprivation foisted upon James, but it is a wonderfully funny moment, expertly played by the actors and filmmakers.
James’ rudest adjustment to life outside the bunker is heralded by his realisation that ‘Brigsby Bear Adventures’ is not the global phenomenon that he thought it was, but instead a TV show made by Ted for an audience of one. The psychologist that Greg and Louise take James to see, Emily (Claire Danes), insists that James forget Brigsby, a powerful vestige of the painful crime committed against their family. However, James has spent much of waking life contemplating Brigsby and his eternal struggle to defeat his nemesis, Sun Snatcher, and cannot let go so easily. Instead, James enlists the help of Aubrey and his newfound friend, Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr., a promising newcomer), to make a Brigsby Bear film to finish Ted’s long-running, home-grown saga.
Director Dave McCary, who grew up with Mooney and his co-writer Kevin Costello, has a strong grasp on the picture’s complex tonal blend. Moving between family drama and absurd comedy often in the same scene, it requires a deft hand at the helm, and McCary is more than up to the job. Working with cinematographer Christian Sprenger, known for TV comedies like ‘Atlanta’ and ‘Baskets’, and composer David Wingo, known for his terrific collaborations with directors David Gordon Green and Jeff Nichols, McCary matches the film’s savvy storytelling with solid craft throughout.
This is a strange and lovely little movie. It is a melancholic rumination on growing up, on life, and on the impact and role of popular culture. It is evidently a deeply personal film for Mooney and his childhood friend-collaborators McCary and Costello, and this care comes through in the film. ‘Brigsby Bear Adventures’ was a labour of love for Ted, and ‘Brigsby Bear’ represents the same pursuit for Mooney. I think that love, in this creative sense, has a particular texture on film, and ‘Brigsby Bear’ should be held up as an exemplar of this powerful effect.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting