The Lonely Island, the comedy trio made up of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone, are best-known for their Saturday Night Live shorts and satirical, off-color films like Hot Rod and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. But with Brigsby Bear, which debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the laugh-a-minute trio attempted something new: producing a touching tribute to fandom and fan filmmaking.
Directed by fellow SNL crew member Dave McCary and starring cast member Kyle Mooney, Brigsby Bear kicks off in an underground home where the young James Pope (Mooney) lives with the people he believes to be his parents, Ted and April Mitchum (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams). His only connection to humanity beyond them is a part-educational, part-Doctor Who, part-Teddy Ruxpin children’s show called “Brigsby Bear”. James is what you would call a superfan, taking part in message boards and filming YouTube videos with his theories regarding the show. He hoards an entire library of episodes, past and present. To say it’s his life would be an understatement, particularly given that James’s parents won’t let him leave the house due to “toxic air” that could kill him.
One night, James’s entire world changes when the police raid his home and reveal to him that he’d been kidnapped as a baby and held hostage for his entire life by Ted and April. As James returns to his biological family (played by Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, and Ryan Simpkins), who he’s meeting for the first time, he struggles to adapt to the real world or accept the fact that Brigsby Bear was never really a popular television show, but merely a trick his captors played to keep him entertained and educated while he was locked away. So he does what any well-adjusted, eager fan would do: he decides to continue the show as a feature-length film he’ll make himself.
Brigsby Bear feels almost like a strange mash-up of Room, Napoleon Dynamite, and Be Kind Rewind. On the Room end of things, there are serious moments about the psychological impact of a person being sheltered for his entire existence, which comes pouring out of James at intermittent points. He doesn’t understand how to interact with his new family, nor does he understand basic things we take for granted, like movies, or even the fact that any media at all exists besides Brigsby Bear. It sounds silly, but McCary and Mooney (who is also the film’s co-writer) mine this material for an extensive amount of pathos, while also playing up the sweet and innocent nature of the character in a comedic fashion.
Mooney’s performance as James echoes something out of Jon Heder’s iconic role from Napoleon Dynamite, but never quite devolves into parody in the same way. The movie lives (and never dies) on his performance. If one could imagine a figure like that existing in our real world, surrounding by the trappings we know, Mooney brings that to life. James is a relateable figure, but never feels like a caricature, instead reflective of some of the more earnest elements of hardcore fandom. Lastly, on the Be Kind Rewind side, the latter half of the movie centers on James’s quest to create his own fan film and the friends he makes in the process of bringing his vision into reality. Much like in Michel Gondry’s film, the devotion, care, and legitimacy of James’s creations are clear, regardless of the budget or experience behind the amateur filmmakers.
Brigsby Bear never would have worked if it was a film of judgement. While James often receives quizzical looks from his biological parents and acquaintances, he’s never the subject of ridicule by the adults in his life or the teenagers he meets by way of his sister. The latter, I think, is particularly interesting, because 20 years ago, the science fiction fan would have been lampooned or bullied or treated like an outcast. But here, he’s befriended by the popular kid at school, who also happens to like Star Trek and sees a hip irony in the material James loves. Truth be told, Brigsby Bear feels like it’s going out of its way to remind the audience that passion for a fictional property or universe is no less legitimate than a devotion to anything else. In fact, it’s these things we love that shape who we are.
Brigsby Bear never overstays its welcome, running at a lean 97 minutes, and provides some genuinely warm-hearted escapism for even the most cynical among us. It’s a charmingly off-kilter debut for McCary and fingers crossed that The Lonely Island keeps aiming their development interests towards these kind of exciting and unexpected directions.