A surprise hit at Sundance earlier this year, Brigsby Bear comes courtesy of the creators of a recent crop of digital shorts that have been running on “Saturday Night Live,” which are decidedly different than the musically oriented, Lonely Island-produced shorts from years past. The feature is the product of writers Kyle Mooney (also an SNL cast member) and childhood pal Kevin Costello, as well as director Dave McCary, who also directed the SNL shorts, and it begins with a children’s television show called “Brigsby Bear Adventures,” a sci-fi adventure with a rich mythology that seems almost tailor made for a young man named James (Mooney). As soon as he watches a new episode on VHS tape, he hops on his computer and talks to a few regulars that visit chatrooms about the show, where they share theories about what they’ve just seen and guess where the episodes might take them next.
James than visits or eats with his parents Ted and April (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams), during which he also talks about Brigsby Bear. It might also help to mention that this portion of the story takes place in an elaborate, fully-stocked underground bunker, where James’s parents say they must all stay put since the fallout above has rendered the surface unlivable. I don’t want to spoil too many things about this weirdly magical tale, but things in James’s world change, and he finds out Ted and April have been lying to him about a great deal. Not coincidentally, new episodes of “Brigsby Bear” stop arriving, and in his new life on the surface, James makes new friends and decides he wants to finish the Brigsby Bear story himself using all of the original show’s props and costumes.
Brigsby Bear is about a lot of things, and it’s perfectly written in a way that everyone who sees it will pull different meanings from its construct. But the message that jumped out at me was about the new nature of fandom. How there are many out in the world who believe a series or movie must somehow serve them, or that they have any type of sway over plot points or character development. What’s worse, some creations (especially ones on television) listen and respond to such comments, in the spirit of fan service, and make changes as a result. In the case of this film, the fan becomes the creator, but for James, he needs the experience to snap him back into the real world and continue maturing as an adult, something he’s been for quite some time.
What happens in the process of making the final “Brigsby Bear” is that those who help him realize his dream become his first set of friends, something that hopefully will have a lasting impact in his rapidly expanding worldview. Brigsby Bear is populated with a diverse range of actors, including Claire Danes, Greg Kinnear, Michaela Watkins, and even Lonely Island member Andy Samberg (actually the group serve as producers on the film), many even playing against type bringing yet another level of discovery to the process.
Considering how often the SNL shorts are about awkward behavior and detailed observations about a particular type of ’90s family television, I was genuinely shocked to acknowledge how layered and smart Brigsby Bear gets at times. There are plenty of laughs. But at a certain point, we realize how much James’s mind and understanding is in need of repair work, and that realization grounds what comes next. In addition to solid writing, Mooney’s take on James is consistently strong and promising for possible roles outside of pure comedy. I hope audiences embrace the curious and strange vibe of the film, if only so Mooney and McCary can embark on future big-screen adventures together. This one’s a keeper and even one worth seeing more than once in an effort to peel back the layers of James and his extended childhood.