In Brigsby Bear, Kyle Mooney plays grown man-child James, coping with being reunited with his birth family after a lifetime spent in a idyllic bunker with his captor-parents. Having believed that the outside world was inhabitable, his life was spent with the singular obsession with a children’s educational program starring the cuddly (and creepy) creature of the film’s title. Discovering that the program was just one of the lies created by his benevolent captors (played by Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) is just the beginning for James’s adjustment into the real world. It’s not as icky or depressing as it sounds, but it sure is as affected.
The film plays with a touch so light, an attempt at fairytaled optimism with some dark material, that it glosses over some very unfathomable behavior from everyone involved. Though the film is lucky to have a game ensemble with the likes of Michaela Watkins, Claire Danes, and Greg Kinnear, that goodwill only goes so far with the level of unpleasant self-involvement the film’s characters operate from. Or worse yet with a nonchalant regard for the consequences of James’s mental health. No matter his displacement, James would be better off without the circle of folks the film drops him in the middle of. This “real world” isn’t all that believable either.
That precious feeling the film casts upon both James, and by extension Mooney, feels false if well-intended. Mooney doesn’t deliver much in playing James that makes his complex emotional turmoil all that compelling; there isn’t much illuminating to either the trauma of a new life forced upon him or living with a life that was all fantasy. Suspiciously, the film tries to have it both ways in its portrayal of James naivete, mocking his unworldliness and establishing him as a hero. For a film that reaches for sweetness, it’s oddly mean-spirited as well.
Though the narrative doesn’t provide much interest, there are underlying ideas that serve the film much better. James’s mechanical, unquestioning stance on the saga of Brigsby Bear has some insight on the kind of blind allegiance that meets franchise mythologies particularly in youth. That James essentially doubles down on his devotion to Brigsby even after learning how he was a tool for his own psychological abuse is a fascinating lens to blind fandom in the age of nostalgia. Though the film is still too breezy to really dig into that subject either.
On some level, the film is about how we reconcile in adulthood the stories we are told in youth, whether that may or may not have been for our benefit or simply to make things easier for the grownups. What’s missing is balance: the honest with the fantastical, the sober with the sweet, the real with the twee.