Long-time collaborators Kyle Mooney and Dave McCary have developed short films, videos for Epic Rap Battles of History, and sketches for Saturday Night Live during their partnership, but it’s Brigsby Bear that should rightfully make them both household names. A celebration of the power of storytelling as a means of connection and conciliation, Brigsby Bear’s earnestness will win over any audience who sees it. What first seems like an obsession with a child’s television program rapidly becomes a metaphor for childhood innocence and the parts we lose when we reach adulthood. In this way, Brigsby Bear is an examination of the transitional periods we experience and how important it is to connect with others.
James (Mooney) lives a simple life with his parents Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams) in their underground bunker. When not doing his chores or homework assignments, James is watching, examining, or discussing his favorite television show, Brigsby Bear Adventures. One night, James’s entire world falls apart when the F.B.I. arrive on his doorstep, rip him away from Ted and April, and tell him that he was abducted as an infant. For some, this would be a crushing realization, but for James, the real mental blow comes when he learns that Brigsby Bear Adventures was never finished. To him, Brigsby is more than a character on a television show; he’s a guiding light through the terrors of growing up which is something James needs more than ever when his life is abruptly upended. As he tries to make sense of his new world, James does the only thing he knows how to do – turn to Brigsby Bear for help. In this case, that means finishing the story left incomplete.
Though the premise sounds dour, the film is anything but. Rather, the premise provides a solemn foundation for a story meant to uplift and inspire and to remind audiences about that part of ourselves we leave behind to take on adulthood. This is perhaps most greatly signified in an interaction between James and Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear), the man responsible for rescuing James, when they discuss Vogel’s long-held love for acting. When Vogel explains that he put it aside, James simply responds that it’s sad. There’s no judgement or lingering look. There’s just a recognition from James that Vogel chose to give up the thing he loved whereas James sees no reason why he should have. This is, perhaps, the core of Brigsby Bear and why it makes such an emotional impact on audiences – despite all of his potential hang-ups, James’s refusal to give up when everyone around him is shouting for him to come to terms with his reality is far less an act of adolescent rebellion and more of idealistic optimism. He quite simply believes that that the story of Brigsby needs to be finished and he’s the one to do it.
This aspect of the story is what creates the crux of the drama. On the one hand, his parents, Greg and Louise, – played beautifully by Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins – and his integration therapist Emily (Claire Danes) believe that Brigsby is a negative influence hindering James from processing the experience he’s been through. Their perception is that James is a victim who underwent a great trauma and refuses to accept his reality. For their part, Walsh and Watkins deliver a heart-breaking performance as two parents whose relief at finally putting their family back together is simultaneously met by the frustration of failing to connect with their son. Danes, in a small, yet impactful role, is appropriately stiff as she portrays a specialist blinded by her own perception. Without realizing it, Emily consistently attempts to fit James within a box, instead of seeing him as fully-dimensional.
On the other hand, there is James’s new friend, Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). At first, James is shocked to learn that others are unaware of Brigsby and then elated to share these adventures with anyone who’ll listen. One such person is Spencer, a film buff and future filmmaker, who latches onto the idea of helping James finish the story simply because they can. There’s no hesitation, no second-guessing, just an automatic “yes” because the beauty of adolescence allows them to not believe any differently. To his credit, Lendeborg Jr.’s performance is forth-coming, honest, and idyllic, straying far from caricature, suggesting years of experience in this, his second feature film. To them, Brigsby isn’t a thing to be cast aside and forgotten, but to be cherished and shared.
As delightful as all of the performances in Brigsby Bear are – and this doesn’t even begin to cover Kinnear’s kindhearted detective (as teased above) or Andy Samberg’s delightfully subdued cameo appearance – none of it would work without Mooney. It’s a career-defining role as he effortlessly demonstrates the various layers to James through a fairly minimal, even-keeled performance. Mooney, as James, has the difficult task of being an outsider to the world and the audience, yet his performance manages to appeal to the child within us all. Whether by tone or manner, Mooney presents James like a child engaging with the world, impressed by its largess and newness. It’s a tender, subdued performance of which Mooney should be proud.
Brigsby Bear is many things. It’s joyful, heartbreaking, charming, and utterly quixotic as it reminds audiences that it’s ok to embrace the childlike parts of ourselves; the parts that inspire you to create, to dance, to play; the parts that often get shouted down by adulthood. Whether it’s in theaters or on VOD, take an adventure into the stars with Brigsby Bear. You may just remember the joy you too had forgotten so long ago.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.