Brigsby Bear is a piece of weirdo cinema that seems like the kind of fake movie you’d see as a film-within-a-film mocking Sundance. It’s precious bordering on twee, deeply nostalgic, possessed of a quirky synth score (courtesy David Wingo, frequent Jeff Nichols collaborator), and full of actors from the indie comedy scene. It’s practically a checklist of Sundance stereotypes—and it was, indeed, a big hit at this year’s Sundance. But Brigsby transcends its made-for-mockery foundation. It’s a little too sweet for the inherent darkness of its story, but Brigsby Bear is a sensitive and sincere portrait of loneliness and fandom.
Kyle Mooney, best known for writing the weirdest SNL sketches, and also having most of his sketches cut for time, stars in and writes Brigsby Bear, his first feature writing credit. It’s directed by Dave McCary—also of SNL—and co-stars fellow SNL cast mate, Beck Bennett. Together, Mooney, McCary, and Bennett form part of Good Neighbors, a sketch comedy troupe brought to SNL to fill the void left when the Lonely Island moved on to bigger and better things. Lonely Island, in turn, produces Brigsby Bear. The comedy scene remains incestuous. But those roots matter because a film like Brigsby only works when everyone is on the same page, and having years of making oddball comedy together gives Brigsby a confidence it might not otherwise have.
And the film must have confidence, because the protagonist does not. Mooney stars as James, a young man living in a bunker with his parents. James’s life is one of routine and gas masks because the air is poisoned and can give you “skincer”. James’s bedroom is completely decked out in gear for “Brigsby Bear”, a low-budget children’s TV show that looks like something from 1980’s era, sub-PBS public programming. James loves “Brigsby”, and his entire life revolves around the show and his love for it.
Only none of it is real. James turns out to be the victim of a kidnapping, and after twenty-five years locked in that bunker, he’s released into the real world and reunited with his real parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins, both way too capable for anything the script gives them to do). Dropped into this new reality, James has no touchstones and no understanding of the modern world—his technology in the bunker seemed to tap out circa 1989—and then he learns that his beloved “Brigsby” is fake. His kidnappers made the show to brainwash him.
This is the heart of darkness in Brigsby Bear, but beyond one bit of dialogue from James’s real dad, no one really addresses the connection between “Brigsby” and James’s trauma. It’s there, present in the story, it’s just not addressed in a meaningful way. And it doesn’t have to be, because Brigsby Bear isn’t really about trauma so much as it is how fandom can provide connections that lessen loneliness. James could just be an awkward shut-in who can only relate to people through this old TV show he loves.
Which begs the question why even have the kidnapping plot? Brigsby Bear is rooted in a darkness the film seems otherwise uninterested in addressing. It’s a sweet story about a painfully awkward young man slowly learning to open up to experiences in the tangible world—I won’t say “real” because Brigsby makes the case that a virtual experience is just as valid and real is a live one. It’s a love letter to fandom and the dream of getting to grow up and someday contribute to the thing you love (a dream made all the more poignant by the producers, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who were living the Brigsby dream, directing a Star Wars movie until they got fired). What Brigsby isn’t, is an examination of trauma and avoidance and how pop culture aids—even encourages—that avoidance.
But Brigsby Bear is still a pretty great movie. If you’re not into awkward humor, it won’t be for you because James is SO awkward it’s painful to watch. And it doesn’t want to delve into the trauma it introduces, but as a work that celebrates the love we can have for the art that touches us, Brigsby Bear is a delightful oddity about one weird guy’s belated coming of age and the chintzy TV show that helps him grow up. Even if he did only watch it because he was kidnapped.