Dave McCary’s Brigsby Bear is one of the finest films of 2017, a delightful, unsung indie gem that demonstrates the human condition has an irresistible drive to fun, family and friendship, even in absurd and unthinkable conditions. That the filmmakers, including McCary and star/co-writer Kyle Mooney would think to make a comedy out of this material. That it works, and that the light, sentimental tone never feels creepy, forced, or inappropriate is nothing short of a miracle.
I hesitate to say too much, because the joy of discovery is one of this magical film’s greatest treats. I wish I had gone in knowing nothing, and if you haven’t read it, I’d advise you to eschew reading my review until you have.
Start with the story, one of the most original and idiosyncratic premises in years. James (Kyle Mooney) has lived all 25 years of his life in a subterranean bunker with his parents Ted and April Mitchum (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) and receives his education from “Brigsby Bear”, a fantasy television show about the adventures of anthropomorphic bear in space. When the compound is raided and James learns that Ted and April aren’t his real parents, that they kidnapped him when he was a baby, he is returned to his actual family, the Popes, but does not lose his obession with his beloved Brigsby.
And why should he? The fact that for his entire life this was James’s primary source of entertainment, education, and outside affection, it really is an engaging program. One of the most brilliant traits of the film is how thoroughly convincing “Brigsby Bear” is as an epic fantasy adventure show. The filmmakers know that story would not work if we did not believe James would be so enthralled by this childlike saga, Barney meets Space Opera, and come to share it with him. The quality is 1980s public access, which lends it a quirky charm, and the characters and the scope of their adventures is intoxicating, as we see kind-hearted, brave, and sometimes self-effacing (when he has to learn a lesson) and his endearing human sidekicks the chipper Smile Sisters take on Sun Snatcher, the villainous living planet, across time and space, collecting magical artifacts, encountering strange creatures, and learn valuable messages along the way. Ted has had decades to craft this mythology, and it shows. When James gets out in the real world and finds out about the entire filmmaker process, his first thought, quite naturally is to make his own Brigsby movie.
Now in theory, this should all be dark, dark stuff. God knows we’ve heard more than enough stories of children being kept locked away their entire lives by oppressive, abusive parents- there was a news story about 13 siblings held captive that just broke- and it’s easy to see this being the starting point for a serious, disturbing drama such as “room”. Yet the movie is a quirky indie comedy, not particularly dark, and it somehow works without feeling exploitative or distasteful.
That the tone is sweet and even heartwarming is an expression of its unique young hero. Kyle Mooney imbibes James with enough eccentricity and social awkwardness for us to believe the singular isolation of his background while still recognizably human. The heart of his performance and the crux of the story is that James has come out of this ordeal in one piece, naive and ill-prepared to enter society, but with his innocence preserved and not beyond hope. James is a work in progress. He doesn’t recognize his incarceration as abuse, and the film makes the persuasive case that he can use an element from his dark past for good, making friends in the process as well as telling a fun story.
The objections are clear. As Greg Pope (Matt Walsh) points out, the Brigsby props James is using to make his movie aren’t collectors items from a legitimate piece of nostalgia. “These are tools used by very sick people to imprison my son.” He’s right of course, but does that mean all things Brigsby must be thrown away and suppressed? What if, undeniably, it has become a part of James?
The dichotomy of this central conflict is manifested by Matt Walsh as James’s real father and Greg Kinnear as Detective Vogel, the kind-hearted police officer who handles James’ case, two talented and nuanced performances in a wonderful supporting cast. Greg has a legitimate point, but Vogel aids James’s movie with the best of intentions. Time was he wanted to be an actor himself, and the chance to participate in James’s fantasy awakens his own imagination and whimsy. There’s something irresistible endearing about Vogel, due in no small part to Kinnear’s perchance for tempering professional concern with earnest affection. James doesn’t see Vogel as his liberator because he doesn’t see himself as a victim. But they are friends, and it is truly a unique and special friendship at that.
The supporting players are equally charming and valuable. There’s Ryan Simpkins as Aubrey Pope, who initially sees her long-lost brother as an embarrassing oddity but warms up when she realizes how harmless his eccentricity is and how infectious his playfulness. Michaela Watkins is Louise Pope, who struggles to find the best way to love her son and finds that his happiness is not a sickness after all. The thing is, by making his own Brigsby Bear movie with new friends like Meredith and Spencer, spending time with his sister and expressing himself in the process, James is exorcising whatever demons he didn’t know he had, and something truly loving can come from it. Kat Lyn Sheil has a small but poignant role as the actress who didn’t know the low budget supposedly public access show she doubled as The Smile Sister was for an oppressed audience for one. Her apology to James is heartfelt and heartbreaking, but he doesn’t know what she is sorry for.
It’s one of the most sincere and stirring lines of the movie, and it works because the film understands James, sympathizing with him without condescending, appreciating the absurd humor of his situation with mocking him.It’s something to behold.
Mark Hamill, unsurprisingly, is the standout of the cast and in the third best role of a legendary career, here is a film that appreciates his legacy and plays to his strengths. One of the most talented voice actors of all time, Hamill provides both the spunky timber of Brigsby himself as well as Sun Snatcher’s wicked snare. And of course, he plays Ted Mitchum, one of the most enigmatic and complicated characters in recent memory. This is a character who forces us to face the uncomfortable fact that it is possible that 1. Ted did an incredibly evil, sick thing to an innocent child and 2. He really does love his son. Hamill is sublime in his nuance and his ability to craft a man we can somehow sympathize with despite our first instinct to dismiss him outright as a monster. The film is clear there was no sexual or physical abuse, and when Ted tells James how their dreams and imagination help them survive, we see that he is a storyteller caught up in his own whimsy. It is a dangerous delusion, of course, but it did not destroy the boy.
The crucial scene of absolute honesty occurs when James visits Ted at prison. James does not resent his former captor, but instead wants him to voice the characters in the Brigsby movie. Ted gives him that, as well as his attempt to explain the inexcusable. Ted’s attempt to apologize and offer insight is reminiscent of Paris, Texas and Life During Wartime in its bittersweet recollection of tender times, and the breathtaking moral clarity achieved by a demented individual.
What they had to give was something extraordinary, and ultimately there is something cathartic in taking on Brigsby head-on, embracing the campiness and accepting that it has shaped James’s past but he is now free to define his future. James’s Brigsby Movie is itself an act of catharsis. It has allowed him to connect with his new found friends and unexpected fans. The endless tapes Ted made James were part of an ongoing adventure that never ended, as Greg notes, tools to keep James oppressed. But now James can finally write a story where Brigsby confesses his love to Arielle Smiles and defeat Sun Snatcher. The parallels between the story James writes and his own experience are obvious, and in finally giving Brigsby a happy ending, he is in essence, freeing himself. That owning Brigsby is actually a positive development is realization Greg eventually comes to with the vital line “We’re your family, James. We love you for who you are. And we know that Brigsby is part of that.”
Of course, this is a valuable lesson that applies to so much more than just the adventures of a talking space bear, and its the focal point of a true masterpiece.