Offbeat comedy drama Brigsby Bear opens on a peculiar scenario with intriguingly sinister overtones. James, a man in his twenties (Kyle Mooney), is watching a children’s television show called Brigsby Bear. It is recorded on VHS tapes, and appears to be a low-budget programme portraying the implausible adventures of the teddy-bear-like hero and his friends, accompanied by pointed advice to the audience on morals and manners. The advice is weirdly specific, almost as if it were intended for James alone, and also includes puzzling references to advanced mathematics. Later, we see James eagerly discussing Brigsby Bear online with fellow Brigsby enthusiasts, suggesting that Brigsby Bear is a vintage TV show that has gained an ironic adult following. But when James discusses the show with his parents at dinner, it is with the earnest zeal of a child discussing his favourite super-hero. Also, the living conditions are ominous: James and his parents seem to reside in some kind of sealed structure, and only venture outside in gas masks. All this is explained minutes into the film, when James’ life is changed suddenly and drastically.Unfortunately, the remainder of the film does not live up to this promising introduction. When James unexpectedly learns the truth about his life, his supposed parents, and his beloved Brigsby Bear show, his world is completely disrupted. He is taken from his sheltered environment, and finds himself living in unfamiliar circumstances and coping with situations he never expected to encounter. His childish inexperience is played for laughs, as the people outside his former enclave try to acclimate James to ordinary life, but the humour begins to wear thin after one authority figure after another (a policeman, a therapist) receives incongruous or naively tactless answers to their questions.
James’ day to day life is a constant struggle to adapt. His ‘new family’ want him to give up his continued devotion to his hero, Brigsby Bear, something James resists. He becomes depressed, sick of being a misfit. When he learns of the concept of amateur filmmaking, James becomes truly animated at last, filled with enthusiasm for the idea of creating a new Brigsby adventure. Along with a few newfound friends, he throws himself into the project. His creative efforts are soon disrupted, when his family decide that his Brigsby fixation is not in his best interests, and he is forcibly prevented from continuing with it. The film indirectly addresses the idea of creativity as a healing tool, as James is eventually allowed to finish his Brigsby masterpiece, thereby overcoming his obsession and allowing himself to move on from his past.
Brigsby Bear does have some entertaining moments. The bizarre opening scenes are attention grabbing, featuring Mark Hamill as James’ supposed father – a droll insertion of the object of fan obsession into a story about fan obsession. James’ innocent but decidedly wrong remarks are often not only funny, but mildly subversive in their implications. The young people who embrace the Brigsby Bear films as nostalgic camp make an interesting comment on popular culture.
The film is well made and well acted, particularly by Kyle Mooney in the lead, and to be fair, it could be considered a success as a conventional comedy/drama. Sadly, the plot never quite lives up to the potential suggested by its earliest scenes. A storyline that seems, at first, likely to become something wild and inflammatory, is instead soothed into an offbeat but mostly innocuous, warm-hearted story about a misfit who finds his way. It inspires speculation that it may have started life as a truly outlandish script, which had its sharp edges rubbed off for the sake of marketability. It makes me wonder what the film might have become in bolder hands. In fact, appropriately enough, it makes Brigsby Bear, like the children’s show itself, a perfect subject for fan-fiction.