Review: 'Brigsby Bear' is a True Love Letter to Fandom & Filmmaking
by Adam Frazier
August 17, 2017
The beloved sketch comedy group Good Neighbor was originally formed in 2007 by Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, Nick Rutherford, and Dave McCary. The comedians racked up millions of YouTube hits with their offbeat and uncomfortable sketch videos, including such notable standouts as "My Mom's a MILF", "Is My Roommate Gay?", "420 Disaster," and "Unbelievable Dinner," based on Steven Spielberg's Hook. In 2013, Mooney and Bennett joined Saturday Night Live as featured players along with McCary, who stayed behind the camera as a segment director. Now Mooney and McCary are transitioning to the big screen with the indie comedy Brigsby Bear, a feature-length narrative about friendship, family, and nostalgia that deftly blends humor and heart to create something that is both odd and oddly affectionate.
Directed by McCary and co-written by Mooney and their childhood friend Kevin Costello, Brigsby Bear stars Mooney as James, a sensitive young adult living in an underground bunker with his over-protective parents, Ted and April Mitchum (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams). Sheltered since childhood, James' only connection to the outside world is a VHS-era educational children's show called Brigsby Bear, a bizarre but endearing amalgamation of Teddy Ruxpin and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. James has grown up with the live-action fantasy series, and Brigsby Bear's mythology has grown with him, becoming more and more intricate with each new VHS tape that is delivered to the subterranean shelter.
One night, while sneaking out to hang out on the roof, James sees a fleet of police cars approach his desert dwelling. James is taken away from Ted and April, who are arrested. At the police station, Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) and Deputy Bander (Bennett) inform James that Ted and April are not his birth parents. Even more shocking to James is the fact that Brigsby Bear isn't real. The children's program was created and produced by the Mitchums, with Vogel explaining that the police found the studio where the show was made. Everything James thought he knew was a lie, and his most treasured possessions – a treasure trove of Brigsby Bear VHS tapes & memorabilia – are taken as evidence, leaving him without a coping mechanism.
Vogel introduces the shell-shocked James to his actual parents, Greg and Louise Pope (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), and their teenage daughter Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins). As his family tries to help him transition to a new life, James can't stop thinking about Brigsby Bear. He can't start this new chapter of his life until Brigsby's story is finished. The superfan decides that he will bring closure to his childhood hero's epic adventure, and his own traumatic past, by writing and directing a Brigsby Bear movie. In the process, James meets new people and makes the kind of meaningful connections his life has lacked.
On its surface, McCary's absurdist comedy film is about a man-child who uses filmmaking to overcome his loneliness and give life meaning. On a deeper level, it's about innocence lost, and how we often seek comfort in replicating the joy we once felt as children. I'm talking, of course, about nostalgia. Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as 'a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past,' nostalgia is a kind of melancholy – a quiet heartache that leaves us longing to return to a time when things were simpler. For children of the '80s, nostalgia is a fundamental human emotion these days.
Pretty much all of us grew up obsessing over pop culture, searching for something greater than ourselves in that passionate pursuit. Childhood, after all, is when young, impressionable minds are most susceptible to the mesmerizing power of storytelling. We can all remember connecting with a movie or television show that ignited our imagination. For me, it was Star Wars. I spent my childhood, and the better part of my adulthood, consuming and collecting as much Star Wars stuff as possible. I read every Expanded Universe novel – every magazine, comic book, technical journal, and essential guide I could find. I found meaning in that galaxy far, far away. Its mythology was my religion, and its fantasy became my reality.
Because of my intense fandom for Star Wars and my inherent need for nostalgia, I immediately connected with Mooney's sensitive if somewhat naïve character. I didn't grow up in an underground bunker in the desert, but a small town in the Appalachian Mountains – 30 miles from the nearest mall or movie theater. I wasn't held captive, but I spent a lot of time indoors, in my room, playing with Star Wars toys. To see Mark Hamill, my childhood hero Luke Skywalker, play the man behind James' obsession, brought about an overwhelming catharsis. Who better to portray Brigsby Bear than Hamill, an icon who represents fandom and nostalgia so hugely in pop culture? Hamill's work here is fantastic, and he manages to imbue Ted with a kind of gentle empathy, despite the man being a criminal who brainwashed a child with a fabricated TV show.
Mooney was born just a few months before me in September of 1984, and it's very clear that we had similar experiences growing up. Our generation was spoiled in the sense that there were so many insanely imaginative and fully realized worlds to explore. Star Wars, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Thundercats, G.I. Joe, Transformers, Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - the list of popular '80s and '90s properties that are still household names today is astounding. Brigsby Bear is a reminder of that era, a kindhearted and uplifting examination of the power of storytelling and how embracing your inner-child isn't a sign of immaturity, but an attempt to reclaim some of the innocence lost in adulthood.
I loved this movie. McCary, Mooney, and Costello have created a comedy drama that deals in the kind of awkward, absurdist gags you might expect from a Good Neighbor sketch video or even an SNL bit, but is a wonderful piece of personal filmmaking. There's an emotional depth to this story and its characters that resonates with me - I find a kind of truth in this story, the same way I found truth and meaning in Star Wars. Mooney's performance is pitch-perfect, and the script does an amazing job at keeping the various supporting characters tethered to James' life in meaningful and impactful ways. Together they form a new mythology for James - a shared universe of experiences and connections that will inspire James to continue creating long after Brigsby Bear's journey comes to an end. That's all we could hope for, right? To be so inspired by something that we are driven to create, and hopefully inspire others to do the same? By that measure, not only has James succeeded, but McCary, Mooney, and Costello have, too. This is a film that will leave you inspired and hopeful - it's something I desperately needed to see, given current events.
A love letter to storytelling that taps into the childlike wonder that still exists in all of us, McCary, Mooney, and Costello's Brigsby Bear is one of my favorite films of the year and shouldn't be missed.
Adam's Rating: 5 out of 5
Follow Adam on Twitter - @AdamFrazier