Whether you find Brigsby Bear deeply moving or deeply insufferable will depend on your tolerance level for three thematic elements: nostalgia, movies about moviemaking and art that celebrates the power of art. Not that such themes don’t have their places in movies—without nostalgia, we wouldn’t have classics like American Graffiti, Stand By Me and a slew of other such period dramas. The glories of Singin’ in the Rain, 8 1/2 and Day for Night wouldn’t exist without filmmakers daring to make films about the joys and agonies of the filmmaking process itself. As for art celebrating art—well, isn’t it nice to be reminded every so often of what art is capable of inspiring not only in its consumers, but in its creators?
Still, it’s easy to be nostalgic. Just about everyone likes the feeling of momentarily escaping into the pleasantries of one’s own past, especially if it means temporarily fleeing a troublesome present. Far gutsier is looking past nostalgia, working up the emotional resources to face the present and contemplate the intimidating unknowns of the future. That kind of tough-minded perspective is what great art ought to do: challenge us to look past our reflexes instead of just comforting us. For me at least, the more movies I watch, the more I find myself becoming resistant to films that indulge in nostalgia trips without questioning that perspective to some degree, wondering if the past was really as rose-colored as we’re all inclined to think. Combine that with turning moviemaking and movie love into subjects—and thus offering easy catnip for at least some cinephiles—and the feeling of pandering to a certain breed of moviegoer is, for this viewer at least, inescapable.
Brigsby Bear offers a particularly dubious example of this kind of sentimentality. The protagonist of Dave McCary’s film is James (Kyle Mooney), who has spent most of his sheltered life living in captivity under the care of Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams), both so bent on keeping their charge away from the harsh realities of the world that they’ve gone so far as to create a whole long-running television series. Ted and April have broadcast the eponymous Brigsby Bear, a cheesy kid’s show given all the production values of a public-access cable production from the 1980s, on a closed loop to James for years. The world of Brigsby Bear is thus the only world James has ever known—which makes his sudden emergence into the real world, when his parents are finally arrested for kidnapping and he is reunited with his birth family, a not-entirely-happy affair, especially once he realizes that no one else has ever heard of this TV character, whose fantastical adventures he’s been obsessed with all his life. Only when his actual father, Greg (Matt Pope), takes him to the movies one day does he hit upon a way to keep the adventures of his childhood hero going: He’ll write and direct his own adventure, using online tutorials to learn how to make his own movie.
McCary, Mooney and the rest of the Good Neighbor sketch-comedy troupe behind Brigsby Bear thus cannily check off all three of those aforementioned thematic boxes. This Room-like scenario offers a clever justification for James to thereby enshrine his childhood as a way to help him adjust to reality and help better relate to those around him. Through this narrative too, the filmmakers get to appeal directly to cinephiles by both including scenes of James tapping into his inner filmmaker on an extremely limited budget, and by also offering a feel-good celebration of the potential of movies as a healing and unifying force.
Brigsby Bear is so committed to its brand of self-congratulatory uplift that the filmmakers refuse to contemplate any of their material’s darker aspects. The closest anyone comes to questioning the wisdom of James indulging in this childhood obsession this way lies in a scene in which Greg takes Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) to task for what he views, not unreasonably, as the detective intruding on his son’s progress by returning the Brigsby Bear head to James from the police station. Even then, though, that scene, bristling with the kind of edgy tension generally missing elsewhere, is all for nought when Greg eventually falls in line with the rest of the cast of character—not to mention when, towards the end, Greg offers to help finish his son’s project when James is sent away to a mental institution.
An honestly heartening film might have been made out of the raw dramatic material of Brigsby Bear, one that took a more tough-minded stance on its main character’s indulgence in nostalgia, allowing a sense of optimistic spirit triumphing over adversity to emerge from a more plausibly difficult climb toward normalcy. McCary’s film, instead, takes the sugary-sweet crowd-pleasing route, with even the barest hint of grimness batted away like a pest distracting us from the march toward the inevitable final scene of mass hand-clapping affirmation. Brigsby Bear turns out to be as much of a device for coddling moviegoers as the titular closed-circuit TV show itself.
Director: Dave McCary
Writer: Kevin Costello, Kyle Mooney
Starring: Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, Claire Danes, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Greg Kinnear, Mark Hamill, Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Ryan Simpkins, Kate Lyn Sheil
Release Date: July 28, 2017
Kenji Fujishima contributes film criticism to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and Village Voice in addition to Paste. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.