*** out of ****
(for thematic elements, language, brief sexuality, drug material, and teen partying)
Released: August 18, 2017
Runtime: 100 minutes
Director: Dave McCary
Starring: Kyle Mooney, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear, Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Ryan Simpkins, Alexa Demie, Claire Danes, Beck Bennett
This isn’t your typical transition from small screen to big for a cast member of Saturday Night Live, but then Kyle Mooney‘s never been your typical SNL cast member.
Sort of an anti-breakout star, Mooney’s unique brand of uncomfortable off-beat humor is more conceptual than joke-driven, causing his sketches to regularly land in the final barren slots of SNL broadcasts when only diehard viewers are still up and watching.
Despite never having a sketch character that’s struck the pop culture zeitgeist, Mooney has amassed a cult following of those eager to see what awkward quirk he comes up with next for SNL’s waning minutes. Given that, his launch into feature films was never going to follow the traditional path of stretching out a skit to feature length either. Instead, what we’ve finally been given is Brigsby Bear, a perfect vehicle for Mooney’s wheelhouse of heartfelt weirdness.
From a script co-written by Mooney and Kevin Costello, Brigsby Bear follows a young man’s passion for a fictional children’s show by that title, one he’s loved since childhood. The catch: that show is unknown to the world, as is the young man James Pope (Mooney). James has been raised in a literal bubble of sequestration by a couple (Mark Hamill, Jane Adams) that kidnapped him as a baby and have raised him as their own.
Fake Dad Hamill has produced “Brigsby Bear” on low-rent 1980s production values over the years. It has served as the primary entertainment for James but has also slipped in indoctrinating thought-patterns to keep James oblivious to the truth of his reality, and ignorant of the world.
When events lead to a disruption in the regular delivery of a new “Brigsby” episode, James becomes obsessed with finishing Brigsby’s story on his own. In the process, he becomes conscious of the wider world, and that world begins to discover that it has as much to learn from James’ innocence as he does from them, and probably even more so.
The details of how all that unfolds are best left for the experience of the film itself, particularly since Brigsby Bear is about the power of story, of myth, and of how fantasy prepares us to face reality.
Those simple formative stories of our childhood can become transformative in our adulthood, tapping into our innate nostalgic impulses and then transcending them, cleansing us and re-grounding us, if we soften our hearts and allow them to.
When taken seriously, as we once did in our innocence, these myths help us to regain sight of the purity we’ve lost, and the identities we’ve abandoned.
Director Dave McCary, a previous collaborator with Mooney, applies a twee tone that arcs from sinister to sweet along James’ journey. It’s effective though not as distinctive as it’s admirably striving to be; ambitious yet not quite as visionary as a Spike Jonze or Charlie Kaufman fable. But as the movie goes, it grows – and it grows on you.
By the final act, we’re given a really beautiful expression of what family is, of what it should be, and the grace found in a generosity that embraces people for who they are rather than what we’re hoping they’ll become.
Humor is mined from James’ extreme arrested development, as you’d expect, but eventually that’s also where the movie gets its heart, its soul, and its sincere challenge to become like a child again. Sure, that’s a nice sentiment, maybe even Pollyannaish, but Brigsby Bear makes a convincing case that it’s also wise. And, if we’re really honest, it’s necessary.