Brigsby Bear – Make Something Cool With Your Friends!

By Ezra Stead 

Brigsby Bear, USA, 2017

Directed by Dave McCary

Though Dogtooth certainly has its dark sense of humor, one wouldn’t expect a movie about an abducted child raised in an isolated, hermetically sealed world based on lies to be a comedy. This type of premise has yielded great results as emotionally devastating drama, as in the rightfully acclaimed Room, or intense psychological suspense, as in the by-and-large underrated 10 Cloverfield Lane (not about a child abduction, but dealing with similar ideas in terms of the nature of the protagonist’s captivity). Despite these and some other obvious comparison points, though, veteran Saturday Night Live director Dave McCary’s feature debut, Brigsby Bear, is a wonderfully original, sincere, and idiosyncratic movie that manages to not only earn cruelty-free laughs from an inherently unsettling subject, but also to make a larger point about the very nature of art and entertainment, without being annoyingly meta about it. 

Though McCary deserves credit for his work as director, Brigsby Bear belongs, above all, to its co-writer and star, Kyle Mooney (also an alum of SNL, as are many of the supporting players). Abducted as a young boy by Ted and April Mitchum (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams), Mooney’s character, James Pope, has grown to adulthood under their constant supervision in an isolated bunker out in the California desert. Helping to raise him all this time has been a children’s television program called Brigsby Bear Adventures, new episodes of which arrive each week on VHS tapes, despite the post-apocalyptic conditions that have supposedly made it impossible to leave the bunker without a gas mask. James even discusses Brigsby Bear Adventures in online forums with other fans out there somewhere in bunkers of their own, but when police finally find and rescue James near the beginning of the movie, he soon learns that those other fans were really just Ted and April all along. In fact, Ted has been making Brigsby Bear Adventures exclusively for James’s viewing. No one else in the world has ever seen the only TV show he has ever known even existed.

Another movie that provides a comparison point here is, of course, The Truman Show, but the main difference lies in how each protagonist reacts to the big reveal; whereas Truman wanted to get out of the show and live his own authentic life, James feels somewhat lost without Brigsby Bear Adventures, and determines to make his own feature film conclusion to this sprawling fantasy saga with which he’s been obsessed for his entire life. Much like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (never thought I’d be mentioning that and the Oscar-winning Room within the same review), or Birdemic, the low-budget weirdness of Brigsby Bear Adventures garners the interest of people like Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.), a friend of James’s sister, Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins), and Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear), the cop in charge of James’s rescue from the Mitchums.

The infectious charm of the “bad-good” Brigsby Bear Adventures program is only part of what Brigsby Bear has to say about art, though. When James’s real father, Greg (Matt Walsh), finds out Detective Vogel is helping James make his own Brigsby Bear adventure, he is initially upset because the show was a tool used to keep James captive for so long, and to manipulate his behavior. This is the key to what the movie is really saying, because all of entertainment and media is, in fact, this same double-edged sword. Yes, Brigsby Bear Adventures was used to manipulate James and keep him docile, but it was also the one thing that comforted him and made life worthwhile. In a way, this is true of any movie or TV show we value in the real world; sure, it’s manipulating our emotions in order to influence our decisions (especially financial ones—some prominent product placement in Brigsby Bear itself had me craving a Coke), but it’s also giving us insights into our own lives, and thereby making those lives better. Greg is right to be concerned about the negative effects of James’s obsession, but Detective Vogel is also right to help him pursue it, because maybe the healthiest thing he can do is to use the inspiration from his favorite work of art to make something inspiring of his own.

This is what makes Brigsby Bear such a wonderful, life-affirming movie—the way it reminds us that, in all of life’s darkness and confusion, sometimes the very best we can do is to bring people together in order to make something cool.

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’ Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper, and occasional stand-up comic who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in New York City, where he is working on his first novel.

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