If you’re already planning on seeing Brigsby Bear — maybe because it was co-written by its star, Saturday Night Live’s Kyle Mooney, or because it was produced by both the Lonely Island and The Lego Movie’s Phil Lord and Christopher Miller — then you might as well just stop reading here.
This movie is great, and far more fun to watch if you have no idea what it’s about. So if you’re already inclined to go, then you’re making the right choice. Go forth and enjoy.
If you’re undecided, then let me put it this way: Brigsby Bear is highly original and not in the least derivative, but it still recalls a handful of other movies: Lars and the Real Girl, Be Kind Rewind, Being There, The Truman Show, and just a dusting of Room, with a side of Teddy Ruxpin.
And in addition to Mooney, the film stars Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear, Claire Danes, Michaela Watkins, and Matt Walsh.
Still not convinced? Then read on.
Brigsby Bear is a surprising comedy about a kid who grew up strange
In most cases it’s dangerous to draw too straight of a line from filmmakers’ upbringings to their films. But in the case of Brigsby Bear, it makes perfect sense.
The movie is the brainchild of Mooney, Kevin Costello, and Dave McCary, childhood friends who met in the seventh grade. Mooney and McCary were a comedy duo making YouTube videos when they were hired by SNL in 2013, Mooney as a cast member and McCary as a writer and director. Mooney co-wrote the Brigsby Bear screenplay with Costello, and McCary directs. (The group recently gave a delightful interview to the New Yorker.)
It seems logical that the trio of friends would wind up making a movie about friends making a movie, and both the camaraderie and the insecurities of that experience. But Brigsby Bear is a little more than that. It’s also a movie about feeling weird, whether it’s because you’re obsessed with a super-niche cultural product, or because you grew up in a bunker (figuratively, or maybe literally).
The New Yorker interview revealed that McCary and Costello grew up in insular religious households, and that all three felt like outsiders during their formative years. Given that feeling like an outsider is common territory for comedy, from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to Rushmore, it’s not surprising that all of these themes are woven together in Brigsby Bear. But the resulting film is anything but conventional.
Mooney plays James, a young man who seems to live in his parents’ basement — a basement inside a bunker in the middle of a rocky desert landscape. James and his parents Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams) don’t leave the bunker without gas masks — and rarely leave the house at all — though James sometimes dons a mask in the middle of the night and sneaks out to look at the lonely landscape.
But mostly, James spends time in the basement obsessing over thousands of episodes of a low-budget cult sci-fi show called Brigsby Bear, in which a human-sized bear and pair of identical girls called the “Sunshine Twins” battle an evil force that’s trying to take over the universe, while also imparting life lessons about not trusting strangers and how to do complicated mathematical equations. New episodes are delivered weekly via VHS. James has a poster of one of the Sunshine Twins on the wall of his bedroom, which is decked out with Brigsby Bear paraphernalia. Brigsby is his life.
But then, one day, the FBI arrives and takes James away. It turns out that James was actually kidnapped as a baby by Ted and April from his real parents (Michaela Watkins and Matt Walsh) and reared in isolation in the bunker — and, what’s more, Brigsby Bear wasn’t a weekly TV show, at least not in the usual sense. It was Ted’s project for educating James, produced entirely by him and recorded onto VHS.
That realization understandably rocks James, but when his “new dad” takes him to the movies, he realizes that there are lots of movies and shows, and anyone can make one. Having befriended a few friends of his teenage sister (Ryan Simpkins), including budding animator Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) — and with the help of the sympathetic police officer who rescued him (Greg Kinnear) — James sets off to make a Brigsby Bear movie that will “finish the story.”
Brigsby Bear is about how the things we love help us find where we belong
Unlike Kimmy Schmidt and Room, Brigsby Bear treads fairly lightly on the emotional trauma of lifelong isolation. But that’s because — for whatever reason — James’s “captors” didn’t have particularly malicious intent. They just wanted a baby, and they knew it was wrong to take little James, but they did it anyhow. Brigsby Bear was a project of enormous, if twisted, devotion to his welfare.
And though James understands what happened to him, he also spent his life fixated on Brigsby: the lessons he taught, the intricate details of his mythology. He can’t extract his personality from Brigsby’s stories, and after he’s rescued, he droops until he’s able to reconnect with those stories. Everything James knows about the world comes from Brigsby, which means he evinces a childlike wonder that makes him seem a little weird, but in the manner of a creative genius.
So there are shades here, too, of Being There, Hal Ashby’s satirical 1979 comedy about a man raised entirely within the confines of one house who can only communicate in terms of the television shows he watched. The difference, though, is that James isn’t considered some kind of savant or sage by those around him. Though he’s in his 20s, with the emotional maturity of a teenager and some hurdles to a “normal” life, he can function just fine. It’s only his Brigsby fixation that sets him apart from others.
And that is the heart of Brigsby Bear, and what makes it relatable even to those of us who didn’t have a fake dad making a TV show just for us. Most everyone has sustained a passionate fascination with some cultural item so fierce our parents were worried for us: a band, a movie, a series of books.
What Brigsby Bear gets is that those fascinations are how we create our own place to belong — a place where we can be creative and secure, whether in a fandom or just a group of similarly obsessed friends. To some people, this kind of behavior might seem weird. But Brigsby Bear gets it: sometimes, we love something so much that we find our place among other people who do. And sometimes we love it so much that other people come to love it, too.
“There are other people out there, just like us,” James tells Ted one night while he’s still in the bunker. “And we’re all watching Brigsby, right? That means something.” It sure does.
Brigsby Bear opens in theaters on July 28.