Sitges 2017 Review: Brigsby Bear will melt your heart
In which a man in a bear costume will teach you about fandom, dreams and being an artist.
A lot has been said recently about the toxicity of fandom, and how dangerous it is when fans feel entitled to the property they love – just look at the way Star Wars fans are so divided over the man who gave them the very thing they love. Yes, fandom can be bad, and people can go to extreme lengths to protect and destroy the property they consider themselves fans of. At the same time, art can bring people together in ways nothing else can.
Brigsby Bear is co-written by and starring Saturday Night Live’s Kyle Mooney, and produced by both the Lonely Island and Phil Lord and Christopher Miller from 21 Jump Street. You should see this film knowing as little as possible about it, but if you’re still not convinced then keep reading.
We follow James Pope (Kyle Mooney), a man-child living with his parents Ted and April – played by none other than Mark Hamill and Jane Adams. James is just a tiny bit odd, his room is full of merchandising for an old TV show called Brigsby Bear which he spends his days watching and learning everything from being polite and believing in yourself to complex arithmetic and physics. We get the feeling something is not right with the world when he’s not allowed to leave the bunker he calls a home without a breathing mask. Nevertheless, James seems happy. That all changes one day when the FBI arrives and takes James to his real parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), who he’s never met since he was abducted as a baby and raised by lunatics.
Now, this sounds kind of like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Both use bunkers and kidnapping to tell a fish-out-of-water story with humor and charm. Where the former uses its premise for quirky and hilarious results that make constant fun of Kimmy’s serious trauma, Brigsby Bear takes a different approach. Despite knowing full well that James is not like the rest of the people he meets, and despite everything that’s happened to him, director Dave McCary – longtime friend of Mooney and co-writter Kevin Costello – treats James’ situation as seriously as possible.
Brigsby Bear doesn’t focus on the trauma of James’ kidnapping because for some reason James’ captors didn’t have bad intentions in mind. McCary also avoids showing James as a loser or an idiot. Yes, it’s funny to see James repeat phrases he hears from other people without knowing what they mean, but unlike Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the character isn’t defined by what he missed while kidnapped.
Kyle Mooney does a surprisingly good performance as James. It is easy to fall for James without feeling sorry for him. He’s been through some horrible things, but he doesn’t show it because he doesn’t know it was something bad. For James the biggest shock is not finding out he was kidnapped, but that the low-budget TV show he adored for years isn’t real. Brigsby Bear was made by his captors.
From here the film turns into an exploration of creativity, fandom and community. Again, the script makes some smart decisions by avoiding what you would expect from this kind of movie. Instead of everyone being mean to James and making fun of his love for a TV show only he knows about, his passion starts infecting people who want to help him complete the show’s story by making a movie.
Dave McCary shows skills as a director in his feature film debut. Brigsby Bear perfectly captures the silliness of the TV show James wants to recreate – including bad special effects and set pieces, while treating it seriously. You laugh at what happens because James finds it funny, but never at his expense.
Brigsby Bear is a perfect love letter to movies and to being an artist. A feel-good ode to fandom and how art brings people together that never gets cynical despite the story it explores. You will laugh, you will cry, and then you will beg for a full-on Brigsby TV show.
Grade: Opening Night