“It’s sincere and delightful, whimsically whipping up its high concept, examining its characters and creative parallels without losing sight of its direct narrative goals.”
by Ken Bakely
Films about filmmaking seem particularly difficult to do well. Many are too self-conscious to find a bridge to the audience, while others are so flippant that they fail to be about anything except satirizing their own nature. Dave McCary’s Brigsby Bear cuts through the clutter and winds up as something different and better. It’s sincere and delightful, whimsically whipping up its high concept, examining its characters and creative parallels without losing sight of its direct narrative goals. It elevates the frenetic power of artistic discovery through the lens of a character who’s discovering everything else, too. James (Kyle Mooney), a young man just freed after spending his entire life in an underground bunker, is pushed to embrace the outside world, but first, must figure out how to contextualize the one he’s known.
When he was an infant, he was kidnapped by a couple (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) who educated him solely through Brigsby Bear, an elaborately plotted children’s TV show about an anthropomorphic bear that they created themselves, eventually turning a nearby warehouse into a secret studio and filming hundreds of episodes. Upon being freed in a police raid, and returned to the home of his biological parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), James is dismayed to learn that Brigsby doesn’t exist beyond the realm of the bunker. But after watching his first movie, he’s compelled to pick up a camera and finish Brigsby’s story. He’s open to the most pure sense of discovery. His new friends become his cast and crew, and word of his pursuits spread across the internet, turning him into an online celebrity.
Consequentially, James’s ongoing adjustment to society is relentlessly publicized. He’s thrust into the complex situation of having to let go to everything he once knew,while still keeping a firm grasp on the cornerstone of his development. The script, written by Mooney and Kyle Costello, turns the production of the in-universe movie into an externalization of this process. As a result, Brigsby Bear has to address its emotional backdrop directly. There’s no opportunity to hold its cards to its chest. McCary handles this precarious tonal challenge with a clean openness. Every scene is about evolving James as he moves towards his own creation. Mooney portrays him with a free energy. The film treats his comedic lack of knowledge about everything (he types every inquiry he has into Google, and even the way he phrases the questions are amusing) with the same curiosity as his personality, instead of a preening snark which would have resulted in an irreconcilable juxtaposition.
Yet while the movie is every bit as affecting and transparent as its protagonist’s love for creativity, it’s careful to avoid shorthanding. It’s particularly smart in how it uses James’s daring project as a pointed obsession that allows for the eventual broadening of every character’s personhood. They’re more than their initial relation to James and his emergence into the real world, and importantly, James is allowed to harbor mixed feelings at every turn. He’s portrayed with a kind sensitivity, even in the pursuit of madcap, amateur filmmaking. It led me to another revelation. Movies often feed into each other, even more so when they deal with similar concepts in different ways. On a personal level, the warm affectation of Brigsby Bear helped me further understand my lukewarm response towards James Franco’s The Disaster Artist. That film used caricaturish portrayals and sketch comedy payoffs through an entire two hour narrative. Thus, its eventual attempts at messaging fell flat.
Brigsby Bear works because it maintains its perspective all the way through. Everything, from a silly throwaway joke or a larger resolution, is a product that same heart. McCary films with a punchy, playful colorfulness, but always finds room for the tougher edges, and guides his characters through them with foresight. James’s naïveté isn’t a recurring joke for pity, it’s a necessary part of him that waxes and wanes throughout. The movie never dispenses with the notion that he must adapt to his new surroundings, learn from his mistakes, and practically live with his past and present. But it also wonders if the world shouldn’t be more conducive to his uncluttered spirit to begin with, and reminds us that there should be enough room for both.