‘Brigsby Bear’ brilliantly turns a dark premise into a nerdy love letter

 By Dan Cava

August 18, 2017

On paper, Brigsby Bear’s bizarre setup is a hair’s breadth away from heavy dramas like Room and Oldboy. James Pope (played by SNL cast member Kyle Mooney) has lived his entire life in what seems to be an underground post-apocalyptic compound. He’s been raised into young manhood by two grownups he knows as Mom and Dad (Jane Adams and Mark Hamill), and he spends nearly all his time watching “Brigsby Bear,” a low-budget children’s TV show about a heroic bear who fights intergalactic villains. New episodes arrive in the mail every week, and the show’s massive mythology is James’ main source of entertainment and education.

Kyle Mooney as James Pope. Courtesy of Sony Classics

So far so weird, until one day FBI agents raid the compound. James discovers he was abducted as an infant, and at twenty-five years old is suddenly reunited with both his real family and the real world of 2017.

Kidnapping, forced indoctrination, sudden and total disillusionment, Stockholm Syndrome, sexual inexperience – there are so many narrative and characters reasons why Brigsby Bear, under normal movie circumstances, should’ve gone dark: a quirky tragedy with James as an unsocialized sheep torn apart by the wolves of bad luck and social judgment.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

But the moviemakers behind Brigsby Bear have something more rare, and I think much more interesting in mind. Rather than an indictment of society’s intolerance, they’ve made a love letter to, of all things, the redemptive power of nerdiness. Brigsby Bear, it turns out, is something closer to a comedy, a knowing and warm hearted fable about fandom, filmmaking, and friendship.

The thing that makes Brigsby Bear feel so distinctive is the same thing that makes it feel so perceptive: an essentially sunny depiction of society coupled with an insider’s understanding of the humanity that drives media-based obsessions. Through James we learn that devotion to things like TV shows or comic books or fantasy novels need not be a personality malformation or a way of withdrawing from social interaction. That very same devotion can, under the right circumstances, be a source of joy, solace, and even community. Through the people around James we learn that compassion yields more rewards than categorization, and that friendship can be as simple as choosing to find pleasure in someone else’s interests.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

There’s a real lightness of touch at work here, and it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate team for this material to the screen. Director David McCary cut his teeth directing Saturday Night Live shorts alongside the movie’s star/co-writer Kyle Mooney (an SNL cast member) and The Lonely Island (a trio of SNL writers who serve as three of Brisby Bear’s producers). These guys are tight and clearly on the same creative page. Much of the warmth and insight is present in the movie’s unified overall design. The shots choices are simple and saturated with color. David Wingo’s score is a cozy blanket of electronica, and Kyle Money and David Costello’s script is laced with gentle misfit humor and lived-in character beats.

The fact that Kyle Mooney gives a perfect performance is not surprising (he likely wrote the part for himself), but it’s still no less impressive. Mooney clearly has a marrow level understanding of James that allows him achieve a special kind of transparency. James’ innocence only comes across as naivety in the moments when he is actually naïve to the ways of world. He gains experience without cynicism, and wisdom without losing wonder. Certainly the screenplay and the rest of the cast (with a particularly winning turn by Greg Kinnear as a sympathetic policeman) have a lot to do with maintaining that balance; but Mooney really sells James’ evolution as something a human being could actually pull off, which given all the eccentricity is no small feat.

Greg Kinnear as Detective Vogel. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

With an intentionally idiosyncratic story like this, a handful of things are going strain credibility. But I think it’s better to extend this movie the same courtesy it extends to James. So what if it doesn’t all fit all the time? People are like that sometimes. Really good movies are like that sometimes. Like the character of James, Brigsby Bear works best when not subjected to too much nitpicking.

Brigsby Bear is one of the most unexpected movies of the year so far, and also one of the most rewarding. It takes a potentially dark premise and turns it into something moving, funny, tender, instructive, and most of all, delightful.

Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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