“Brigsby Bear” (2017)
Running Time: 97 minutes
Written by: Kyle Mooney & Kevin Costello
Directed by: Dave McCary
Featuring: Kyle Mooney, Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear, Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Jorge Lendeborg Jr. and Ryan Simpkins
It can sometimes be refreshing to watch a comedy that has a real heart but does not compromise on its set up, it characters or its eventual payoff. So many times movies trade off of a kind of nostalgia either using the past as a catalyst especially through media like music or other movies as well, which is a narrative short cut to enter a plot that otherwise may be simply a retread of another movie. I will not give an example of where this is unoriginal, but one when it is used effectively it works well much like the excellent and timeless “Galaxy Quest” (2005).
Enter the world of the titular as well as fictional character of Brigsby Bear, a creation of a couple of addled minds as well as kidnappers of a child they have kept for years until his discovery. Writers Kyle Mooney and Kevin Costello have constructed an original movie around a kidnapping, a fictional television series as well as the way in which people construct their own realities (as well as others) around complex fictions that may seem real but are artificial in every way.
“Brigsby Bear” (2017) is built around James who at the beginning of the movie lives in an underground home with his parents Ted and April Mitchum. Forced to stay underground by his parents, James’ only connection with the outside world is an educational children’s show called Brigsby Bear. James is obsessed with the show, owning every cassette, and filling most of his room with memorabilia. One night, while sneaking out to hang out on the roof, James sees several police cars approach the home and is taken away from Ted and April, who are arrested.
James is then brought to the police station and meets Detective Vogel, who has been working on James’ case. Vogel informs James that Ted and April are not his real parents, and that he has been held captive ever since he was a baby. He also informs James that Brigsby Bear is not real, and was entirely made up by the Mitchums, with Vogel explaining that they tracked Ted from the studio where the show is made. Vogel then introduces James to his real parents, Greg and Louise Pope, and their teenage daughter Aubrey.
The narrative is fairly straightforward following a simple story that is actually more like a fish out of water plot, wherein the hero of the story ends up enriching the lives of all those people he touches on his journey. In fact one could say that the director and writer of the film have seen the great Peter Sellers “Being There”(1979) one too many times. I am not saying that they have created copies the story, as the themes that are within both movies are universal. However in saying that the invention of the Brigsby Bear fake television show is inspired, a cross between any number of children’s shows as well as any genre show, in particular the comparisons to Star Trek cannot be underestimated. One of the more interesting aspects is the first ten minutes of the movie as we are introduced to what may seem like an odd family to say the least, as well as the environment they are all living in. Once the façade is broken and the ‘real world’ breaks through James has to be confronted by many different truths, which could break someone weaker, of course after a small period of adjustment he consciously or unconsciously finds a way to move on, accepting although not forgetting.
This is a well-written movie from star/writer Kyle Mooney, co writer Kevin Costello as well as director David McCary who believe it or not are all first time feature filmmakers. While Mooney and McCary have previous experience in skit television as well as short movies they have never produced something on this scale or this emotionally complex, it is a feat to be sure. There are reasons why novice filmmakers make genre movies, they are (normally) inexpensive, have small casts, follow genre rules, take place in locations that are easy to light and are compact in plot. This first time movie breaks many of those rules or assumptions by casting really well, with some extremely well known actors, has a narrative built on many layers, has a complex central character as well as satellite characters and involves a few different locations, both inside as well as well as outside, with explosions. The movie does operate using genre to tell a story but it is a metanarrative that exists, it is used perfectly to act as a metaphor for the plot as well as the main character.
The casting in this movie is perfectly done starting with Mooney who is playing an outsized character, a man-child that never feels hollow or false, which just illustrates what a terrific talent he is. The supporting cast is deep but it was the choice of Mark Hamill on a break from his ‘Star Wars’ duties that was the highlight for me, who in a just a few scenes has to portray a very complicated character, one that looms large in James past, present and future. The rest of the cast is rounded out with the always fantastic Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins as James parents who are rightly worried confused by their son; previous Oscar nominee as well as perennially underrated Greg Kinnear as a Detective as well as somewhat supporter/enabler who harbors a secret of his own; Ryan Simpkins as James somewhat suffering younger sister, Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as a new friend for James, Jane Adams as his foster mother and Claire Danes as a mental health professional – just great as always.
Of course the story would not be anywhere neat as fun and original without the titular creation, Brigsby Bear who exists as a childhood friend for James as well as the obsession that many childhood creations can become, just ask any ‘Star Trek’, ‘Star Wars’ or any other genre show that exists. Not only does Brigsby act as a friend in childhood as well as a distraction when he is older, but he is a link that exists between James and his foster (that is a kind term) parents – they can talk to him about the Bear at dinner as well as bond like few parents can, over a genre that many older people just do not understand. Of course when James attempts to explain the Bear to others most just don’t get it at all and think is unhealthy – except for Spencer who as a younger adult ‘gets it’. This friendship that forms between James, Spencer as well as Brigsby to be sure is something special, which grows in a way that nicely exploits social media, online video as well as the low cost technology that is required to do what eventually becomes the driving force behind the movie.
Sure the movie itself is a little transparent as well as mining tropes as well as sentimentality but these are not totally negative developments as the heart that resonates comes from a pure place of comedy, drama and love for the differences that makes us all human. If you would like to watch a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve then this is highly recommended, it has some great performances, announces a couple of great talents to international audiences as well as creating something truly original in its central conceit.
“Brigsby Bear” is currently available on DVD.