James (Kyle Mooney) was kidnapped as a baby from the hospital and raised by Ted (Mark Hamill) and Emily (Jane Adams), who convinced him that the world outside their bunker was poisonous and produced a show called Brigsby Bear – about a anthropomorphic bear going on adventures through space and time to save the universe – to keep James entertained and teach him their way of life for the past twenty-five years. After being rescued and reunited with his birth-family (Greg Walsh, Michaela Watkins, and sister played by Ryan Simpkins) for the first time in his live, and having to acclimate to the entire rest of the world, James only wants one thing out of his new life: to produce a finale for the show that only he’s ever watched.
So, Brigsby Bear is a weird movie, at least superficially. At first seemingly splitting the difference between Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and 2015’s Room, Brigsby Bear does eventually find its own voice; unfortunately though, not one that really builds on the escape and reacclimatize premise set up in the first act. Brigsby Bear is less about overcoming that sort of trauma or taking advantage of a second chance at the world, and more about the virtues of fandom and sincere enjoyment of culture.
And, in and of itself, that’s fine. For the most part, Brigsby Bear is about a group of friends making a movie together based on a television show that they all learn to love, and on that level, it’s a fun light-hearted film about cooperation and imagination. But that does make things tonally weird when the film reminds you that, oh right, our main character should be deeply traumatized. The movie wants to have its cake and eat it too, by having a backstory that should lend gravitas and pathos to James’ journey into the real world; but by showing us that life in captivity wasn’t so bad, and in fact produced something – Brigsby Bear – that the entire world learns to recognize as important and pure.
It would be one thing if Brigsby Bear were bad in-universe, and the movie was about a family rallying around a traumatized member to create something special for them, but we’re shown that everybody loves the show as soon as their introduced to it. It would be another completely different thing if there was no kidnapping plot, and this were just a film about a group of people who like a television show that nobody else does, and feel compelled to make more of it, and in doing so, introduce the world to something they learn to love. But Brigsby Bear tells us on one hand that James is a pitiable character whose life was ruined by this couple that kidnapped him and made him obsessed with something nobody else could understand, while also making this obsession his only meaningful way to engage with the world he’s been thrown into while having everyone else gravitate around him because of it.
It’s almost like a weird indie version of something like Ready Player One, where the takeaway is should to be that it’s okay to dedicate your life to the pursuit of something no-one else understands, and that eventually you’ll find your tribe; but the movie instead shows us that people will inexplicably like you so long as your quirky enough and can overwhelm them with nostalgia, and anybody who disagrees is wrong.
And I feel really bad for being so negative about this one because I did enjoy watching it. It’s a funny movie with a unique premise and aesthetic sensibilities that made me laugh and “aww” in about equal measure. All the characters, from James to both his dads, to the detective who wants to be an actor, and the high-school friend James makes who edits the entire project are all immensely likable. As hollow as the darker elements of Brigsby Bear come off, there’s clearly lots of heart that went into the rest of it. I think I would enjoy it even more if it were entirely ninety minutes of some friends making a low-budget unofficial sequel to a dumb kids’ show they enjoyed, and scrapped the tragedy altogether.