Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special-event releases. A version of this review originally ran on January 27, 2017, in conjunction with the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The best way to see Dave McCary’s terrific directorial debut Brigsby Bear is without knowing anything whatsoever about the story. The specific way it unfolds invites a lot of “What’s going on, and what does it mean?” conjecture from the audience. It's more fun to watch than to read about.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to discuss the exact reasons the film works without getting into the plot. So for the spoiler-averse, here’s the detail-free summary: Brigsby Bear, starring Saturday Night Live’s Kyle Mooney (who co-scripted with first-time screenwriter Kevin Costello), is an endlessly surprising little charmer of a film that makes sincerity and sweetness into a cinematic virtue again. It’s a deliberately small movie about social malfunction, bad parenting, good parenting, creativity, and fandom, and it doesn’t hit a single cynical note.
Mark Hamill co-stars in a rare non-Star Wars live-action role, and the producers include SNL’s Lonely Island trio and hitmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the writer-directors of The Lego Movie. Fans of films like Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank and Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind should take special note.
But for the curious, the critical, and the spoiler-seekers, here’s more about what’s going on in this winning feature film.
What’s the genre?
Sweet indie drama, briefly disguised as something like a Michel Gondry apocalyptic-future film.
What’s it about?
James (Mooney) is a 25-year-old man who’s spent his entire life in a bunker with his parents (Hamill and Hung’s Jane Adams), being fed tales about the toxic air and strange creatures outside. The parameters of his weird world unfold minute by minute: at first, it seems like he and his parents might be the only survivors of some cataclysm. But then it becomes apparent that he spends most of his time obsessively watching the 700-plus episodes of the one TV show still being made: Brigsby Bear Adventures, a kid-friendly fantasy about a Teddy Ruxpin-like hero bear.
On the show, Brigsby and the twin Smile Sisters fight the villainous Suncatcher, a living sun who looks a lot like the irked man in the moon from Georges Méliès’ 1902 landmark A Trip to the Moon. But Brigsby also delivers bizarre educational advice (“Prophecy is meaningless. Trust only your familial unit.”), and the merchandising that fills James’ room follows suit. (A prominently placed Brigsby poster has the slogan “Curiosity is an unnatural emotion.”) James obsesses over Brigsby, uploading video reviews to the internet, chatting with other fans, and filling family mealtimes with commentary about Brigsby’s next move.
Then the police arrive, and James is whisked out of his bunker and informed that the people he grew up with kidnapped him at birth. (The story sounds a lot like the Kamiyah Mobley case, among other, older ones.) He’s brought to live with his birth parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins) and dubious, irritated sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins), and placed under the care of a sympathetic counselor (Claire Danes). And he gradually, awkwardly starts integrating with the unfamiliar modern world — until he finds out the truth about Brigsby, and becomes obsessed with finishing the bear’s adventure in the form of a fan-made film.
What’s it really about?
Creativity, collaboration, friendship, and learning how to connect with people in a threateningly large world.
Is it good?
It’s fantastic. The opening sequence, which introduces the audience to James’ bizarro bomb-shelter life, feels a little like a light comic version of Dogtooth, the 2009 cloistered-children drama by The Lobster writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos. Like the Dogtooth parents, James’ kidnappers have built a world of weird false premises and arbitrary rules, which James takes utterly for granted. It’s a little unnerving and very fascinating, his world of obviously animatronic Wes Anderson-esque gunner-foxes and complicated math problems.
When he emerges into the familiar world, he knows nothing about anything. His assumptions are wrong, his basic speech patterns are wrong, even his basic emotional affect is wrong. It’s easy to see why everyone around him is faintly alarmed when they interact with him.
Finally, a film that makes kindness feel natural
But it would have been so easy for McCary, Mooney, and Costello to turn this into a dopey, sneering fish-out-of-water movie, where James continually makes a fool out of himself, and the world turns on him. Instead, he finds a supportive community that’s honestly interested in his differences, from his sympathetic caseworker detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) to amateur filmmaker Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) to Aubrey’s friend Meredith (Alexa Demie), who takes it upon herself to look into James’ sexual experience. The sheer niceness of the world around him recalls Craig Gillespie’s Lars And The Real Girl, another gently protective movie about people who decide to treat the oddball among them kindly as he finds his way. The mysterious alchemy of Brigsby Bear is that, like Lars And The Real Girl, it makes that kindness feel natural and human instead of sentimental and false.
But the film is also smart enough to avoid a variety of traps. McCary and the writers keep plenty of things about James’ upbringing mysterious enough to invite theorizing and curiosity; they never fully spell out why Hamill and Adams’ characters chose such a weirdly specific educational path, or how much James knows or doesn’t know. And the open questions make the film more plausible than heavy exposition would. The gently ribbing humor is also key. James isn’t an idiot, or a laughable loser; he’s an awkward but game young man who does his best to bluff his way through social encounters by absorbing everything he can from the people around him. (If you see people repeatedly referring to this movie as “dope as shit,” that’s because James hears the phrase from Spencer and adopts it, applying it forcefully to everything he likes, under often-laughable circumstances.)
But part of Brigsby’s success is just the familiar joy of unembarrassed fandom. James’ unswerving devotion to Brigsby Bear feels like every time we in the audience have fallen in love with some piece of media, and either caught ourselves raving about it to disinterested others, or fallen gratefully into a pool of likeminded enthusiasts.
And above all, Brigsby Bear holds together because it’s so flawlessly navigated and so utterly sincere. James has his ups and downs, but they aren’t manipulative, cheap, or calculated. The filmmakers treat his newfound love of filmmaking as a beautiful community-inspiring project, precisely like the “sweding” process in Be Kind Rewind. And Mooney’s performance is perfectly pitched between gormless hilarity and a disarming sweetness. It’s easy to want him to succeed not just at moviemaking or integrating with the outside world, but at navigating all the little stumbling blocks he can’t anticipate.
What should it be rated?
Possibly PG for a little no-skin-bared sexual fumbling. The actual Brigsby Bear Adventures TV show is clearly rated G, in spite of some educational messages about penis-touching and trigonometric functions.
How can I actually watch it?
Sony Pictures Classics picked up the film and is releasing it in theaters on July 28th.