Earnestness is an underrated value in filmmaking. In an industry run and consumed by cynics, Brigsby Bear, a film about coming to terms with unexpected changes in life, is refreshingly lacking in conceit and contrivance. For 97 minutes, you can visit a cinema and bask in the glory of a cassette-operated bear. And why not?
James (Kyle Mooney, TV’s Saturday Night Live) lives and breathes Brigsby Bear Adventures; he has all of the episodes on VHS, he records videos, and he participates on the Brigsby Bear message boards. When James is separated from his parents (Mark Hamill, The Regular Show, and Jane Adams, Twin Peaks) and discovers there will not be any more Brigsby Bear Adventures, he doesn’t know what to do with his life. Then he learns that anyone can make a movie, and so he sets out to conclude Brigsby’s story on his own terms.
There is a surfeit of movies about movie-making, but that’s only a facet of Brigsby Bear. Brigsby Bear is not just about pop culture as identity, but also the power of art as therapy. There’s a power to the making of something and the spirit of collaboration that can be communicated to audiences regardless of their own talent or experience, and that is captured perfectly here. This movie is remarkably untechnical — James’ project almost seems to materialise on the screen instead of the story focusing too much on production — but it never loses sight of what it considers important.
Mooney, starring in a script written by himself and Kevin Costello, brings his considerable talent to bear in emphasising the positive lessons that can be learned from the terrible personal experiences one might endure in life. James is understandably awkward, and that’s not just because he’s played by Mooney, but he is undeniably endearing. The cast, littered with a variety of Saturday Night Live cast members both past and present, are committed to propping both Mooney and James up, and many of them provide a remarkable amount of pathos. Michaela Watkins (Casual) constantly teeters between concern, joy and sorrow in a delicate balancing act, and Greg Kinnear (Little Men) is able to embrace his inner ham as policeman and amateur dramatist Detective Vogel. All of the teenage actors are heartwarming in their acceptance of James as well.
Brigsby Bear has dark themes hiding within, and it touches on them frequently, but director Dave McCary (another Saturday Night Live alum) has such a light touch that he never allows proceedings to become heavy. Brigsby Bear is likely the funniest movie about its subject matter you’re likely to see, and there’s never one of those tonal lurches where a character has a nervous breakdown which has to be awkwardly glued back together in a Hail Mary final act. McCary displays such talent that he is even able to make Utah look like a great place to shoot a movie: truly, he earned those tax credits.
This extends to Brandon Tonner-Connolly’s (The Bad Batch) production design: nothing seems off about Brigsby Bear Adventures if you’re familiar with the sort of terrifyingly cheap looking direct-to-video adventures that were endemic to the eighties. The film features a staggering amount of Brigsby merchandise, all lent an incredible verisimilitude by the custom-built animatronic Brigsby head. At no point does it feel like Brigsby couldn’t conceivably have been a real intellectual property, which is all the more poignant and bizarre in the finished work.
Brigsby Bear is the sort of festival film that other festival films dream of being. Certainly it’s quirky, but it’s informed by an unassailable sincerity at its heart that dares you to accept it. Far from another film about embracing arrested development, this is a cathartic experience delivered in the warmest possible way.
Brigsby Bear screens at the Sydney Film Festival, 7-18 June, 2017.
Directed by: Dave McCary.
Starring: Kyle Mooney, Claire Danes, Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear, Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins and Jane Adams.