BRIGSBY BEAR

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Dave McCary

Stars: Kyle Mooney, Greg Kinnear, Mark Hamill, Jane Adams, Michaela Watkins, Matt Walsh, Claire Danes, Ryan Simpkins, Jorge Lendeborg jr.

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An inventive, original oddball and quirky independent film from first time feature filmmaker Dave McCary (better known as an Emmy nominated writer on SNL), Brigsby Bear deals with themes of family, friendship, the loss of innocence, love, the indelible impact of pop culture, nostalgia, and the power of movies to heal and transform.

James Pope (Kyle Mooney) has led a rather isolated life, raised by his parents in a sheltered bunker under the care of his two strange and overprotective parents Ted and April (Star Wars’ Mark Hamill and Jane Adams). Believing that the world outside the compound is an apocalyptic wasteland James has spent his whole life inside. Unable to leave due to the deathly air outside, he has become obsessed with watching VHS tapes of Brigsby Bear, an animated children’s television show featuring the heroic titular bear who regularly saved the universe while dispensing valuable moral lessons. Having watched each episode over and over several times James is familiar with the mythology behind the character and regularly blogs about Brigsby on an on-line forum.

But then his world comes crashing down around him as he realises that his life has been a big lie. He was kidnapped as a child and raised by his kidnappers. Rescued by the FBI and brought back into the real world and reunited with his real family James finds it hard to adjust. His knowledge of the real world is limited. His attempts to adjust produce some moments of pure comedy. More disturbingly though he learns that Brigsby was a character created by Ted, who secretly shot the series as a form of home schooling. But James’ obsession with Brigsby is also the catharsis that helps him. Through making his own movie reproducing the adventures of Brigsby Bear and giving the character a suitable finale, with the unlikely help of some new friends, he begins to reconnect with the world and those closest to him, and gain closure for his traumatic past.

Written by Mooney and his long-time friend and collaborator Kevin Costello, the film is not without its peculiar charms, offbeat humour, and plenty of warmth and empathy for its characters. Its offbeat quality will remind audiences of other weird and unconventional dramas like Donnie Darko, Lars And The Real Girl, etc. Mooney, Costello and McCary all went to school together, and all work on SNL, and their strong bond of friendship and similar attitudes and love of nostalgia and cinema have shaped this beguiling curiosity piece.

Performances from the ensemble cast are also very good. As the emotionally stunted twentysomething naive manchild stuck in perpetual adolescence while trying to adjust to an unfamiliar world, Mooney himself makes for a likeable lead character. It is his journey that gives the film its heart. The solid supporting cast includes Greg Kinnear as Vogel, a sympathetic detective whose own faded dreams are reawakened when he agrees to help James with his project. Michaela Watkins and Matt Walsh bring empathy and pathos to their performances as James’ real parents who are at a loss at how to communicate with their son. The cast also includes Claire Danes as a psychologist; Ryan Simpkins (recently seen in the Will Ferrell comedy The House) as James’ younger sister Aubrey; newcomer Jorge Lendeborg jr plays Spencer, an enthusiastic aspiring filmmaker who helps James in his endeavour; while Hamill brings a sympathetic touch to his performance as Ted, the only “father” James had ever known.

McCary maintains the bittersweet tone throughout, and he tempers the darker plot device that opens the film with some genuine empathy and moments of unexpected humour. The premise of a child raised in seclusion by a pair of kidnappers is a controversial and confronting idea around which to build a film. However, the second half as James emerges into the world with the help of family and friends has an optimistic and sentimental air to it that makes the premise more palatable.

I liked the recreation of the B-grade tv show Brigsby Bear and its low rent DIY production values and pre-CGI era special effects. This aspect of the film is also something of a treat, and will have a nostalgic appeal for those who grew up in the 70s watching children’s television shows like H R Pufnstuf, and those other shows created by Sid and Marty Krofft. This is a risky and unconventional film that will not appeal to everyone though.
★★★☆

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