Written by Melissa Jouben
Brigsby Bear Plot Summary:
James Pope (Kyle Mooney) is a sheltered young man who obsessively posts video blogs about “Brigsby Bear,” his favorite children’s television show. When the series abruptly ends, Pope embarks on a life-changing quest to film a movie and finish the storyline.
Before we get into Brigsby Bear, we should probably talk about the movie’s co-writer and star, Kyle Mooney. Mooney – who recently wrapped his fourth season as a cast member on Saturday Night Live – is something of a pop culture junkie. His obsession with TV and film from the ’80s and ’90s has been well-documented in interviews and in his online presence. These influences have been seeping into his work for years. Mooney has established himself as someone who has such a pure, genuine love for overly sentimental television like Family Matters and has in the past created pitch-perfect parodies of those kinds of shows for Saturday Night Live.
He has a collection of VHS tapes that could rival his character in the film’s collection of Brigsby Bear tapes, and the t-shirts created for the film look like they could have been lifted right from Mooney’s personal wardrobe (if it wasn’t for the fact we know Brigsby Bear isn’t real). This is all important, because it helps paint the picture the film is trying to paint: a world where an intense passion for something that may seem silly to someone else isn’t silly at all, as long as your passion is genuine. Brigsby Bear sets out to pay loving tribute to the entertainment Kyle Mooney and co-writer Kevin Costello grew up enjoying and the result is a movie dripping with reverence; a love letter to fandoms and those who create the fictional universes we sometimes wish we could live in.
When we meet James Pope (Kyle Mooney), he’s a young adult who still lives with his parents. He wakes up, does his chores, does his homework, and then spends his evenings watching his favorite show, Brigsby Bear. In fact, it’s the only show he even knows exists. He has just about every piece of Brigsby Bear merchandise imaginable: action figures, t-shirts, posters, stuffed animals, and every episode on VHS. Each week, the new episode gets dropped off at the house and each week he goes on his Brigsby fan forum to review and discuss the episode with all the other Brigsby fans. What James doesn’t know is that the show isn’t real; his father, Ted (Mark Hamill) created the show as a tool to help James learn math and life lessons and to keep him entertained.
What James also doesn’t know is that his father isn’t real, either. Ted and his wife April (Jane Adams) abducted James from the hospital when he was born, and his real parents have been looking for him for 25 years. One day Ted gets caught going into a warehouse to film the new episode of Brigsby Bear and it’s finally all over – the police show up to their underground bunker, arrest Ted and April, and reunite James with his real parents, Greg and Louise (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins, respectively).
After learning literally everything he knows about the world from his favorite show, he finds out the show – and everything involved with it – was fake. There was no Brigsby fan forum, and all those fans he interacted with online were simply his “old dad,” Ted. Those VHS tapes were made just for him and there are no more copies, and no new episodes. James seems to have an easy time adjusting to almost everything else and he’s more or less welcoming of his new family, but Brigsby Bear is something he can’t let go of.
After his “new dad” Greg takes him to see his first movie (a Mighty Ducks-esque story with a small cameo from Tim Heidecker) James is inspired to make his own Brigsby Bear movie that picks up where the episodes left off. He retrieves some of the original show’s props from the sympathetic Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear), a police detective working James’ case. After accompanying his sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins) to a house party, he meets a local teenager named Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) with a passion for animation, and the two become friends as James shares his Brigsby Bear tapes. Spencer uploads them to YouTube, and they begin filming and editing the movie together while the episodes go viral and the world begins to learn about the show James has been consumed by his entire life.
What makes Brigsby Bear so exceptionally special is the level of care that clearly went into every layer of the film. The movie is built around the main character’s obsession with a TV show completely fabricated not only within the plot but in the real world as well – and yet you get the sense that Kyle Mooney could spout Brigsby trivia just as rapidly as his character James, as if they’ve fleshed out the entire mythology of the show-within-a-movie to make it feel as real as possible.
The opening credits scene for the Brigsby Bear TV show that opens the film is such a jaw-droppingly accurate recreation of low budget ’80s and ’90s programming (complete with static and those shaky lines you get when watching an old VHS) that even before I was completely sure what was happening, it was impossible not to relive that sense of excitement I remember having every time I sat down to watch my favorite programs as a kid and start smiling.
James’ wholehearted enthusiasm and obsessive passion for Brigsby Bear is never once played for laughs, and is respected by almost everybody in the film except for his “new” (but real) parents and the family therapist, who come the closest to being considered the villain or source of tension within the film as they try to block James’ attempts to talk about Brigsby.
When I watched James attempt to make his passion film while also getting to explore the real world for the first time and learn important lessons like not taking drugs from strangers, or that building and setting off bombs are technically acts of domestic terrorism, I found myself completely wrapped up in his journey and floored by Kyle Mooney’s performance.
Anyone who knows him from Saturday Night Live or his previous work with his comedy group “Good Neighbor” (the other members of which are Beck Bennett, Dave McCary, and Nicholas Rutherford – all involved in the film as well) will know that his go-to character is of a meek or shy man who speaks very soft and very fast. James Pope is no exception, but the backstory we get for the character as well as the added level of pathos that Mooney brings to him adds up to a character who is almost magnetic when he’s speaking. Nobody has any idea what James is ever talking about, but it hardly matters to them because James seems so sure of himself and so happy to be speaking to people that they almost don’t want him to stop.
As an audience member, I was right there with them.
If there’s anywhere that the film falls short thematically, it may have been in the fact that there was such a lack of tension I started assuming some in all the wrong places. Too many scenes had me ready to cringe at the pure earnestness of James’ attempts to interact with others and socialize, worried that the other characters would reveal themselves to be out to humiliate him, or would simply ostracize him and treat him like a freak. The scene where his sister takes him to a house party is one such scene; I was anxious that it would end in him running out screaming and crying.
It did, but not for the reasons I thought. Instead, he was overwhelmed by the fact he had too good of a time and was having too many new, pleasant experiences. Another scene where he goes hiking with his new friends is so beautifully shot and emotionally charged that I definitely cried some of the happiest tears I ever cried as a moviegoer. If you’re feeling like this movie is going to take a hard turn and really upset you in a bad way, don’t worry, because it seems to take place in an alternate universe where nobody is mean. Not even the couple who abducted James as a baby are mean.
If you’ve ever been a fan of anything and felt like you were misunderstood – or even just feared being misunderstood – because of your passions, this is definitely the movie for you. It was no doubt made with you in mind, and it would be like doing yourself a disservice to ignore it. On the other hand, if you’ve ever made fun of a person for their seemingly strange obsession with something or because of their deep-rooted involvement in any kind of fandom I think watching this movie would be a good experience for you, too. It might be too earnest for some people to stomach, and the lack of genuine conflict might lead to boredom in those with more wandering minds. For me, at least, I walked out of this film feeling like a better person for having seen it.
Rating: 9 out of 10