Finding fault in Brigsby Bear is sort of like punching a stuffed animal in the face. Sure, you can do it, and in some ways smothering your hand deep into its puffy face may actually make you feel better. Or, of course, you could just embrace it as you’re meant to, taking it all in on its own terms, holding it and not looking too closely at any of the missing stitches or lumpy stuffing.
On the surface Brigsby is a fish out of water tale, except here the fish is an abducted child James (SNL’s Kyle Mooney) who is being raised by well meaning-yet-lunatic pseudo-parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams). His one virtual companion is Brigsby Bear, a lo-fi kids show with a life-size Teddy Ruxpin in the lead. Obsessing over his VHS tapes that are carefully curated, James types on his retro keyboard to other members of the Brigsby community, and speaks lines of dialogue as he watches the shows obsessively.
When suddenly rescued from a captivity he didn’t even realize was taking place, James is thrust into an unknown world. Reunited with his real parents (Michaela Watkins and Matt Walsh) along with a sister he had never met (Ryan Simpkins), his biggest acclimation is the realization that the rest of the world isn’t aware of the life-sized bear that formed the basis for most of his life.
It’s a fascinating idea in the reverse – imagine never knowing about Star Wars or Superman and being baffled at the very idea when encountered with the imagery – but here there’s something a bit more subtle at play. What if the thing you love the most wasn’t simply unknown, it was unknowable to anyone other than you? Would the sharing of this in some way undermine its value? Do we cherish things because they are shared, or cherish them more if they’re highly personal? Does the adoration of esoterica trump the collective feeling from the general artifacts of our culture?
Heady stuff for what’s really just a gentle, silly comedy. Sure there are echoes of everything from The Truman Show to Kimmy Schmidt and Room here, but what’s lacking throughout is any kind of cynicism. There’s no grand break coming, no specific psychic damage that comes across as violence. The writers allow James to simply take in the rest of the world as he did Brigsby – it’s something to be fascinated by, and cherish on its own terms.
Much of the charm comes down to Mooney’s take, which is quiet without being milquetoast. In interactions with the police officer assigned to him (Greg Kinnear) or one of his sister’s friends Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), James comes across as open rather than submissive, engaged rather than enraged. This allows the film to gently drift into a kind of silly world where the foundations of James’ childhood are embraced easily by others.
It’s not a slam to say that Brigsby is a feel good film, and its greatest strength is its sweetness and charm. This is a film that feels deserted from cynicism, and maybe it’s that absence that makes it feel a bit light. Yet thanks to the charms of its ensemble, it's easy enough to embrace Brigsby Bear, embracing its worldview that sometimes being a fan can bring people together rather than ripping them apart.