Review by LL Soares
Every once in a while, you come across a little movie that surprises you. That’s how I felt watching BRISBY BEAR (2017) recently. The movie got a very limited theatrical release last year (I’m wondering if it even expanded beyond a brief run in major cities) and was one of those movies I was meaning to see, and then missed, when it disappeared from theaters.
Starring Kyle Mooney from Saturday Night Live, BRIGSBY is a bittersweet film about traumatic change, loss, and obsession. When we first meet his character, James, he’s living inside of a strange, bomb shelter-type house in the middle of nowhere. Even though he’s a grown man, he’s treated like a kid by his parents, Ted Mitchum (Mark Hamill) and his wife April (Jane Adams, also in HAPPINESS, 1998, and POLTERGEIST, 2015). During the day, James goes through his “lessons,” getting homeschooled by his mom, while Dad goes off to work. Looking out of the window, James sees his dad don a gas mask every morning as he gets into his car, reinforcing the story that some horrible event happened that contaminated the earth.
James’s only joy is the weekly arrival of videotapes (old school VHS tapes) featuring new episodes of a show called BRIGSBY BEAR. In them, a big, costumed talking bear travels the galaxy to do heroic deeds and teach valuable life lessons. James idolizes Brigsby, and it seems that he’s not allowed to see any real television (the earth is contaminated, remember?) so Brigsby is all he has. His entire life revolves around this goofy kids’ show. And he is only allowed to go on the internet to post on Brigsby-related message boards, where he interacts with other “fans” he can never meet.
One night, while sneaking outside in his gas mask to look at the stars, James sees sirens in the distance and rushes back inside to warn his parents. But it’s too late. Police officers break in and arrest Ted and April, and whisk James away.
We find out several things at this point. First, the earth is not contaminated. Second, Ted and April aren’t James’ real parents (they kidnapped him when he was a baby). Third, James is in no way prepared for exposure to the real world, so it’s going to take him a while to adapt.
He finds himself reunited with his real family, which he technically never met, since he was only a baby when they last saw him. They include his real dad, Greg Pope (Matt Walsh, who you might recognize from VEEP and COMEDY BANG! BANG!), his mother Louise (Michaela Watkins, from the TV shows TRANSPARENT and CASUAL) and his sister, Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins, also in the movies REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, 2008, A SINGLE MAN, 2009, and who was a child actor in the crazy cult show WONDER SHOWZEN, 2005 2006!). Right away, they try their best to make James feel wanted and comfortable. His parents have even made up lists of things to do as a family, since James has experienced nothing of the outside world.
In order to help him start his new life, his parents want to get rid of anything that will remind him of his “fake” family, but he won’t let go of those Brigsby Bear tapes. He saved a bunch of them from his old home. While James lost his previous life, he refuses to lose Brigsby and continues to watch the tapes.
His parents try to discourage him, even during their sessions with a family therapist named Emily (Claire Danes). James is awkward, but basically a good kid, so they don’t want to traumatize him too much.
Aubrey takes him to a party where he meets some of her friends. The entire experience is world-expanding for James, since he’s never interacted with other kids before. Right away he gravitates toward Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr., also in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, 2017), who becomes his buddy. James also has a sexual encounter (sort of) with Aubrey’s friend Meredith (Alexa Demie), which scares him. Since it’s a party, he also has his first experience with alcohol and drugs. He ends up telling some of the other kids crazy stories from the Brigsby Bear episodes, which immediately captures their imaginations. It’s not long before James is letting Spencer borrow some of the videotapes, and some episodes “end up” on Youtube, where they start building a fervent audience in the outside world.
The thing is, until this point, James is the only real fan the show has, since his fake dad made the show for him, and him alone. No one else has ever seen these shows before. And, while James is obsessed with it, it doesn’t take long for other kids to share in his obsession. Not long after that, James makes the decision that, more than anything, he wants to make a movie. A movie about Brigsby Bear. Taking the story from where the last tape leaves off and giving the series a genuine ending. And he’ll have his friends act in it. Except for one thing. How will he recreate the costumes and props?
Enter Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear, who first got popular hosting the E! channel’s TALK SOUP, and then went on to movie fame in films like AS GOOD AS IT GETS, 1997, and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, 2006), who had a long talk/interrogation with James when he was first removed from the Mitchum household. When James finds out that the police have all of the props and sets from the show locked up as evidence, he begs the kind-hearted detective to let him use the props to make his movie. Vogel, a frustrated actor who never got a chance to really fulfill his dreams, eventually gives in, surprising James with such items as the big, actual Brigsby bear head! It works kind of like a giant Teddy Ruxpin, with a slot for cassettes, which makes the big mouth move as if it’s talking!
So, there’s a tug of war between his parents, who want him to avoid his tragic past, and James who won’t let go of Brigsby. What will happen? Will James ever complete his movie? Will Brigsby become a real-life sensation? Will James’s family ever accept him for who he truly is? Well, you have to see BRIGSBY BEAR yourself for the answers to those questions. But along the way, James will go on a weird and wonderful camping trip with his friends and spend some time in a mental hospital.
The cast is pretty terrific, especially star Mooney, who plays James as a loveable kid who is just trying to find his purpose in a world he didn’t even know existed. Despite being primarily a comedian, Mooney plays it straight, making the movie a bittersweet drama. You really care about this guy. The rest of the cast gives him strong support. It’s a lot of fun to see Mark Hamill in one of his non-Skywalker roles here (I always wondered why he didn’t have a bigger acting career, because he’s great in everything I see him in), as well as recognizable stars like Kinnear and Danes. Simpkins is good as Aubrey, the sister who slowly bonds more and more with her strange brother. Also a joy is Kate Lyn Shiel as a waitress (and occasional actress) named Whitney, who worked on the original Brigsby show, playing magical twins Arielle and Nina Smiles, who help the bear in his adventures. The scene where James actually meets “Arielle” for the first time in person is very touching. SNL regular Beck Bennett also has a small role as one of Vogel’s colleagues, and Andy Samberg (who was also one of the producers) shows up in a scene.
Another favorite character of mine is Suncatcher, the (uncredited) villain from the Brigsby Bear episodes who looks sun with an evil face on it. He also pops up a few times in the movie when James least expects it.
Director Dave McCary previously worked on short films and segments for Saturday Night Live. This was his first feature film. The script is by star Mooney along with Kevin Costello.
BRIGSBY BEAR is an offbeat gem of a film that deserves a much wider audience. I really liked this one a lot and totally recommend it. I give it four knives.
© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares