Director: Dave McCary
Starring: Kyle Mooney, Claire Danes, Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear, Andy Samberg
Brigsby Bear, the debut feature film from Saturday Night Live segment director Dave McCary, bears more than a passing resemblance to the Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. In that show, a young female member of a doomsday cult emerged from the bunker where she had lived most of her adult life only to discover that the world had not ended as she had been led to believe.
Brigsby Bear’s protagonist faces a similar predicament. He is James (SNL’s Kyle Mooney, who also wrote the screenplay), a young man in his mid-20s who lives in an underground home with his parents Ted and April (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams), ostensibly for protection from the radioactive post-apocalyptic wastelands outside. James’s only connection with the outside world is a bizarre educational children’s show called Brigsby Bear, which depicts the adventures of a spacefaring bear while offering handy survival tips and odd pronouncements (‘Curiosity is an unnatural emotion!’).
James’s world is abruptly turned upside down when the police raid the bunker and inform him that there was no apocalypse, that he was in fact kidnapped by Ted and April as a baby, and that they have held him captive ever since. He’s reunited with his real parents Greg and Louise (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins) and his teenage sister (Ryan Simpkins), but he struggles to adapt to the outside world, not least because there’s no more Brigsby Bear to watch. Feeling overwhelmed, he decides to try and recreate the show.
As a satire of fanatical fandom and pop culture obsession (and Hamill really is a perfect choice to feature in a film like this), it would have been easy for Brigsby Bear to slip into cruelty and mean-spiritedness. Its portrayal of James, however, is rarely less than endearing. He’s intelligent, kind and oddly charming, and not quite as helpless as he first appears – as played by Mooney he’s thoroughly awkward but utterly likeable.
Indeed Brigsby Bear’s issues come mainly from the lack of real difficulties James faces in his brave new world, where he faces few bullies or people looking to take advantage of his naivety. His sister overcomes her initial embarrassment with his behaviour with rather astonishing rapidity, and he very soon becomes an established part of her friendship group (virtually no-one questions this obviously older man hanging out with a bunch of teenagers – there’s a scene between him and one of his sister’s female high-school friends that’s played for laughs but feels uncomfortably misjudged.) His parents and psychologist (Clare Danes) are concerned about the impact recreating Brigsby Bear might have on his mental health and relationships, but a late intervention feels like a forced attempt to introduce some conflict to proceedings and it never really convinces.
Still, though, it’s hard not to be won over by Brigsby Bear’s sheer amiableness, its relentless optimism and cheeriness eventually battering you into submission. The supporting cast is excellent – Greg Kinnear, in particular, is wonderful as a police detective with dreams of acting, while Andy Samberg steals the show in a couple of brief scenes – and though it soft-pedals things a little too much to be consistently hilarious there are a few genuine laugh-out-loud moments. It won’t be for everyone, but for those susceptible to its oddball charms, there’s much to enjoy about Brigsby Bear.