Sony Pictures Classics
This movie should not work.
I am wary of whimsy because it’s almost impossible to get right, and there are few things that are less pleasant on film than curdled whimsy. It’s even harder when you want to mix ugly truth with it, but one of the many small miracles of BRIGSBY BEAR is the way director Dave McCary elegantly navigates the difficult terrain of the screenplay by Kyle Mooney and Kevin Costello. McCary should be on the radar of every studio and producer in town now, because this is as strong a feature debut as I can remember recently.
When the film begins, it’s clear that things aren’t exactly normal for James Pope (Mooney), a young man who lives in a bunker with his dad Ted (Mark Hamill) and his mom April (Jane Adams) because the world outside has gone sideways somehow. When Ted goes outside, they have to be careful not to bring in any contaminated air, but Ted has to go out in order to retrieve supplies, including each week’s new tape of Brigsby Bear, a TV show that James has been watching for most of his life. It’s a children’s show, but it teaches surprisingly advanced mathematics and it espouses a very strange world view overall. For the first five or ten minutes, Brigsby Bear just focuses on this arrested man-child and this strange private world of his. Then the FBI raids the bunker, and James is rescued and returned to his real parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), and he has to adjust to the truth: he was abducted as an infant, and he has spent a quarter-century being raised by lunatics.
While The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt mines a similar premise for big laughs, this film is after something different, something more akin to the Greek film Dogtooth. James has spent his whole life being fed one specific version of reality, and all of a sudden, he realizes that the world is something totally different than he originally thought. He originally tries to use the common reference point of his favorite TV show as a way of relating to other people, but then even that foundation is taken from him when he learns that Brigsby Bear was produced by his captors, and he is the only person who has ever seen the show. It’s such a crucial part of his life, though, that it’s hard for him to do much of anything without referencing it. How do you help someone socialize and adjust to a society that they have been completely isolated from their entire life? While Mooney definitely finds plenty of laughs in the way he brings James to life, there’s a reality to the character that is sad and it’s never ignored.
What I found most disarming about the film is the way it refuses to make it easy for James to find his place in the world. His real parents are thrilled to have him home, but they don’t know what to make of their very strange adult son, and their teenage daughter (Ryan Simpkins) is baffled by this weird new older brother of hers. The way James was raised has kept him very childlike in some ways, but he’s not a child. His therapist (Claire Danes) believes that his deep attachment to this fake TV show is holding him back, but James isn’t able to just let go of it, or of the lessons he learned from it. Once his sister’s friends hear James talk about the show, there are a number of ways the narrative could go, but instead of turning the teens into easy bullies or James into an easy joke, the filmmakers choose to try to thread that very difficult needle with something earned and honest instead.
Somehow, Brigsby Bear becomes a celebration of the therapeutic nature of art, and it also looks at how different the impact of art can be from the intention of the artist. Who cares who made the original show or why they did it? Who cares what Ted and April’s intentions were when they kidnapped James in the first place? It happened, and now James is who he is, and for better or for worse, Brigsby Bear is a primary force in his life. Once James learns that the show was made just for him, he decides to make a movie based on the show. I was prepared for something sort of winking and snickering and making jokes about how bad the movie was, but that’s not what the film has in mind. Instead, it’s about the process itself. It is about the community that comes from making art with other people. It’s about the way you have to be able to communicate if you want to make something in collaboration, and how that forces you to learn how to deal with other people.
Sony Pictures Classics
Kyle Mooney’s performance here is remarkable — warm, funny and knowing, and carefully calibrated at every step. There are plenty of moments that could land wrong, but Mooney knows how to bring this character to life in a way that is vulnerable and real, and yet often brutally funny. It’s like watching a movie about the making of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and realizing that Pee-Wee built his private world in order to work through some pretty severe trauma. It makes the world that he’s built even more poignant, because you see why it’s important to him. Watching him slowly pull others into that private world instead of letting them crush it so he has to live in theirs is one of the big joys of the film. I love the relationship between James and his sister, which unfolds in a way that never feels rushed or forced.
The film takes some darker turns, and yet there’s always a delicacy to it. One of my favorite moments in any film this year comes very late in Brisgby Bear, when James finally gets a chance to sit face to face with Ted, his “father” for so many years, and talk to him about the show he made. Mark Hamill doesn’t have much screen time, but that final scene between the two of them is sweet and devastating at the same time. It’s because of James, and the way he refuses to let anger or resentment or regret define who he is. Brigsby Bear may have been the work of a madman, but what this boy took from it while growing up has helped him become a genuinely good person.
One of the reasons it’s so hard for me to get onboard the sort of binary “good person”/“bad person” way that pop culture treats people these days is because the truth is always more complicated than that. If you consider art an important part of our world, then you have to accept that art is made by people, and people are complicated and flawed and disappointing just as often as they’re amazing and strong and inspirational. Good art has been made by terrible people, and terrible art has been made with the best of intentions. Something you consider junk might be someone else’s lifeline, and someone you dismiss completely because you don’t like that one thing they said in that one interview might make something that saves someone else. Art is one thing to the viewer, and something else to the creator, and Brigsby Bear is the most unlikely celebration of all of those contradictory notions. It is a beautiful film, sincere and silly and fashioned from this sort of handmade sensibility. David Wingo’s score is terrific, and Christian Sprenger’s photography perfectly spotlights the lovely production design by Brandon Tonner-Connolly.
Slowly rolling out now in limited release, Brigsby Bear is special, and I suspect that as people find the film, it will become very important to many viewers. If this is what we can expect from Dave McCary, Kyle Mooney and Kevin Costello as filmmakers, then I hope this is just the start of very long careers for all of them.
Running time: 97 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic