[This is a re-post of my review from the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Brigsby Bear opens Friday in limited release.]
You would think the story about a man learning this entire life is a lie would have a little more darkness in it, but Dave McCary’s Brigsby Bear is a surprisingly sweet, warm-hearted picture that’s more concerned about the power of art to provide both a refuge and escape for its audience. Star and co-writer Kyle Mooney always goes more to the childlike wonder and embrace of fandom as a creative force that can power people to not only share what they love with others, but how it inspires them to cope with difficult situations. Although the movie eschews the dark reality of its situation at every turn, it’s difficult to mind when the result is so charming.
James (Mooney) grew up watching the TV series The Adventures of Brigsby Bear, an educational family program with a deep mythology. However, when his home is raided and his “parents” (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) are arrested, he learns that his entire reality is a fiction. It turns out that James was abducted as a baby, raised in an environment that taught him to be afraid of the outside world, and that his favorite (and only) TV show was created solely for him by his kidnappers. Rather than being deeply scarred by these revelations, James is mostly a little awkward and finds a tether to a world he understands by trying to create a Brigsby Bear movie.
If you found out your entire life was a lie and the people who you thought were your parents were actually your abductors, it would probably cause some serious psychological trauma. Brigsby Bear is largely unconcerned with that kind of reality to the point where I’m left to wonder why they even bothered casting an acclaimed actress like Claire Danes in the role of James’ therapist. Although the movie does engage with the pain and frustration that James’ real parents feel, there’s never a moment where you think James is going to break down in a moment of pain and anguish.
Instead, Brigsby Bear focuses on the positive, and shows how James’ enthusiasm for the show and his desire to make a movie are what sustains him. Additionally, the movie is willing to acknowledge that this passion works as both an escape and a refuge. It allows James to avoid dealing with the emotional baggage, but it also gives him a way to deal with his pain. It’s a sly commentary on the power of entertainment and what art means to individuals. No one is trying to make the argument that The Adventures of Brigsby Bear is high art, but it’s showing how art sustains us in times of trouble.
It’s all handled with a light touch, and it’s difficult not to get wrapped up in the childlike sweetness on display. The movie is incredibly funny and a little weird, but it’s always endearing. Mooney makes for an affable leading man as he doesn’t lean too heavily into making James a man-child as much as someone who is struggling to adapt to his new world. He’s stunted, but in a way that makes you protective of the character rather than finding him off-putting.
While some may wish that Brigsby Bear had taken a more serious approach given its dark set-up, the film’s goal isn’t trying to take a hard-hitting look at the dangers of child abduction or Stockholm Syndrome. It’s about the power of art to save and inspire us. It’s a celebration of creativity and fandom, and it will put a huge smile on your face.