by Philip Price
At first, “Brigsby Bear” may seem like the definition of what has come to be expected from a Sundance movie meaning films that often break out at the Park City, Utah film festival are those that include quirky characters doing things only quirky people such as themselves have time for considering real-world tragedies and/or challenging times. Think “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” or “Napoleon Dynamite.” By such expectations “Brigsby Bear” would most definitely check every box necessary to qualify for Sundance's quirkiest of offerings, but like those films these movies still tend to succeed in their objectives because beneath the seeming pretense of being bound and determined to be as weird and peculiar as possible there is genuine heart that exists. These pictures ultimately come from a place of real emotion, of real life experiences, and have seemingly only been materialized into a full-on motion picture due to the fact the writer or writers were able to tap into a fun premise in which they could work through their feelings and thoughts. With “Brigsby Bear,” Kyle Mooney (“Saturday Night Live”) and co-writer Kevin Costello seem to be coping with the fact they've made it to the point they can make a living by utilizing their creativity. Coming from San Diego and attending the University of Southern California it likely always felt within the realm of possibility that Mooney might be able to reach such heights, but it also seems likely he was constantly surrounded by those also attempting to make it many of which no doubt failed to achieve such ambitions. It's a double-edged sword I'm sure whereas, for someone such as myself who lived in rural Arkansas for most of my life, achieving such success or even coming across such opportunities always felt like a pipe dream. For Mooney though, “Brigsby Bear” cements this feeling that he's finally being let it on the inside of the joke rather than being left out in the cold or rather, that others are finally beginning to get hip to the brand of humor and personality that Mooney has possessed for some time. Either way you slice it, Mooney and Costello along with director Dave McCary (an ‘SNL’ crew member) succeed in capturing the spirit of this abstract idea that is creativity and relaying not only what it means to the creator, but to those affected by it.
“Brigsby Bear” begins by introducing us to James (Mooney), a thirtysomething male who is living underground at the behest of his parents, Ted and April Mitchum (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams), who tell their son the air outside is toxic, but who offer something of a greenhouse-type shelter above ground where James can go to view the natural yet flat desert landscapes that surround their bunker. While, as the film establishes the routine of James and his family in the first ten or so minutes of the film, we are unsure whether this is taking place in some post-apocalyptic environment. Things soon begin to unravel as we see Ted and April have placed fake animals and lightning bugs outside the peer where their son can go to view the outside world and they have named them as well only furthering this illusion they have created for James. What the point of doing as much for is not revealed, but while Ted and April are keen to impress upon James the importance of his studies they seemingly learned some time ago that such could not be accomplished through books and classes alone. For what seems to be the duration of James's stay with them they have shown him an educational program in the vein of an eighties and nineties PBS show that were delivered on a weekly basis to the bunker. James, now a grown man, is obsessed with the show and has even taken to online forums, albeit via outdated technology, to discuss the possibilities of where the show might next take the titular character and how he might resolve the intergalactic issues that have a moral lesson behind each of them. What it doesn't seem Ted and April have accounted for though, is that through Brigsby James has found the only connections to other humans outside of them. Brigsby has become this deity of a figure to the innocent and naive mind they have cultivated whereas the bear's sidekicks know as the Smile Sisters, Arielle and Nina (both played by Kate Lyn Sheil), have become the object of James's affections due only to the fact they are the only females James has ever laid eyes upon outside of his mother. It is a dangerous game they've put the pieces in place for and thus is the reason I would suggest going into “Brigsby Bear” as cold as possible. The less one knows prior to allowing the film to unfold in front of them the better, but if more is desired as to why the movie works as an experience of sorts then continue to read on. You've been warned.
It is after establishing how James has come to be the man he is presently that the film abruptly interrupts this established routine to reveal that James has been held captive for most of his life after Ted and April abducted him from the hospital shortly after he was born. It turns out that, not only does James have a real family who have been searching for him all this time in Greg and Louise Pope (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins) as well as a sister, Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins), but also that he was the only viewer the “Brigsby Bear” TV show ever had. That the show was completely manufactured by Ted to teach James the worldview they desired him to have. This doesn't change the fact James was and still is obsessed with the show though with the revelation that, given Ted and April will undoubtedly be going to jail, there will be no more episodes for James to consume. “Brigsby Bear” is rather bold in that it doesn't go in the direction audiences might expect in seeing James completely rebel against his new normal in light of not being able to accept such a reality as normal, but rather James seemingly understands the reality of his situation, isn't sheltered by the Pope's from what happened to him or the fact that it is obviously going to take some time to adjust, but rather it sticks with James attempting to understand all of these things that are new to him as well as comprehend why things are done the way they are in this real world. In many aspects, the film could be likened to Lenny Abrahamson's “Room” minus the parental drama. Instead, what comes to be the crux of the difficulty in James adapting to this new way of life is that he still desires Brigsby to be a part of that life whereas his new family would tend to forget about it as it only serve to remind them of the time that has been taken away from them. On both sides of the conflict, there is understanding to certain degrees and compromises to be made, but it isn't in these conflicts that “Brigsby Bear” places most of its stock. Rather, it uses these conflicts more as support beams to give the movie the arc of a traditional three act structure while much of the actual content revolves around James latching onto filmmaking and his desire to make a feature around Brigsby that would bring the adventures of this character that has defined his childhood to an end; both liberating him from the once literal and now metaphorical shackles the show placed on him while simultaneously providing an outlet for James to discover the real him past the point of Brigsby being a part of his life.
Early on, Hamill's character talks about how having the ability to dream and the fact we, as humans, have imaginations that help us escape reality is what separates us from animals. It is in this that not only does “Brigsby Bear” again go against the grain by making James's captors people who aren't necessary as evil as one might hope they are thus making them easier to hate, but it sets the stage for what the film is ultimately about: imagination. “Brigsby Bear” doesn't focus so much on the trauma of the main character or concentrate on the regret that could be felt on either side of the equation for all that has been missed out on and sacrificed to the point they drive themselves or one another mad, but rather it demonstrates how one can channel that pain and anguish into something inspiring. How, rather than focusing on what cannot be changed James is more intent on creating new memories out of what he knows and learns to experience the joy of this new life. James is not inclined to fight the circumstances of his life, but rather embrace them the only way he knows how and what he knows is Brigsby Bear. In nurturing this approach Mooney, Costello and McCary do well to capture the simultaneous tones that amount to a movie that is heartbreakingly inspirational. Sure, it's depressing to know James was deprived of a typical childhood where he lost out on countless experiences every kid deserves to have, but that means he also didn't have to deal with same amount of cruelty an inherently dorky guy like himself might have been subjected to as well. Of course, the key word there is "might", but the point is the script chooses to allow James to come out of the experience with a sense of wonder and optimism that views adults who have given up on their dreams as sad beings who are going on with life unable to do what's important to them. It touches on the relevant idea of nostalgia and how it can cloud our view of our own maturity as well as how we may or may not fit into other ideas of their ideal, but no such substance would be possible without the performance of Mooney who so guilelessly becomes James that one can't help but be moved by the character, his plight, and his need to feed his vision-especially if you think of yourself as creative in any capacity. That isn't to say the rest of the cast isn't solid-Greg Kinnear is great because he's game and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as James's new friend and collaborator Spencer is endearing as hell-but it is Mooney who successfully carries the weight, emulating every action someone gives him to create his own reaction, that truly makes “Brigsby Bear” "dope as shit".