Brigsby Bear is Either Stupid or Perversely Brilliant

Directed by Dave McCary
Sony Pictures Classic, 97 minutes, PG-13 (brief sexuality)

Brigsby Bear is a strange, but charming film that scarcely stretched its costumed paws before being sent back to the den. I get it; it's the kind of movie you either take to immediately, or exclaim, "WTF?" and turn it off before the TV is even warm. What is it, exactly?

That's hard to say. At times it seems as if it’s a movie about teens that was hijacked by them midway through; at others it feels like an afternoon special, or perhaps a really offbeat Disney project. In my mind, it’s the movie equivalent of music by Flight of the Conchords or They Mighty Be Giants: zany, often ridiculous, and yet strangely affecting. I lump it with idiosyncratic films such as Eagle vs. Shark, The Price of Milk, and Lost in Paris. This is to say, Brigsby Bear has its charms, but don’t expect Citizen Kane.  

Here’s the setup: James (SNL’s Kyle Mooney) lives in a desert biodome-like structure that’s half buried in the Utah desert. He has been told by his “parents,” Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams), that Earth’s air has been poisoned, that he should seldom venture outside, and that he can never do so without a gas mask, the likes of which he sees Ted don every time he drives off. James’ contact with the world is largely through VCR cassettes of “Brigsby Bear,” a sort of cut-rate children’s sci-fi educational show whose titular hero is a man dressed in a cartoonish bear costume with a papier-mâché head. There are math and science lessons embedded into the plots, but these mainly involve Brigsby’s adventures with the Smiles twins in thwarting the plans of an animated and personified sun to destroy the world. Never mind that the whole thing is cheesier than Wisconsin and the acting so stiff it makes Season One of Dr. Who look like Shakespeare, insofar as James knows, Brigsby is real and has an audience of millions.

James’ world is blown apart when law enforcement officials raid the compound, shackle Ted and April, and take James away to meet Greg and Louise Pope, the biological parents from whom he was kidnapped as an infant. He even has a sister, the largely disinterested Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins). Here’s the serious part of the film: How do you socialize what is essentially a feral child trapped in a 24-year-old body? After all, he’s only just learned he can breathe the air, so he has little interest in the beach, basketball, board games, and other such ‘family’ pursuits. What he really wants is access to the new cassettes of “Brigsby Bear.” They, of course, don’t exist; it was Ted in the outfit all those years, but through various plot devices I won’t reveal, he gets a VCR and a few back episodes. He also falls in with his sister’s teenaged friends, one of whom digitizes them and, viola! Brigsby is a YouTube sensation. Courtesy of those same age-inappropriate friends, Brigsby Bear: The Movie is on and along the way James has lots to learn: about communications, sex, controlled substances, and what a bad idea it is to research making explosive devices.

Again, this is either all endearing and delightful or puerile and stupid—depending upon your point of view. The film also stars Claire Danes as James’ psychiatrist, and Greg Kinnear as a cop who misses his college thespian ways. Simpkins is engaging as James’ sister, as is Jorge Lendeborg, Jr. as Spencer, the teen who (sort of) gets James. If you’re a film snob and can’t abide sentimentality, goofiness, or scripts with more holes than a fish net, steer clear of Brigsby Bear. As for the rest of you, give it a try. If you like it, you’re welcome; if not and you suspect I have taken leave of my senses, I understand.

Rob Weir

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