Brigsby Bear: Geek Out, by David Bax
Listen, I get it. If you’re like me, the first few minutes of Dave McCary’s Brigsby Bear may get your hackles up. 1980s geek/sci-fi nostalgia has become exhaustingly ingrained in our current popular culture. It’s especially perplexing when it shows up strongly in movies that otherwise appear to be set in the present day, like last year’s Midnight Special. Yet Brigsby Bear toys with these trapping and your expectations of them, first by being coy about what era we’re actually in and, later, by revealing the meta-textual underpinnings of its aesthetic flourishes. Here is a film that is not just drafting off the obsessive fandom culture from which it bites but instead mounting a heartfelt defense of it as a legitimate way to both process and express your feelings about art and the world at large.
Kyle Mooney stars as James, a young man living in the past or the future or an alternate present with his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) whose life revolves around a television program called Brigsby Bear, a sort of mash-up between fantastical, mythology heavy fare like Doctor Who and lesson-imparting, children-targeting PBS stuff. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I’ll only say that the plot kicks in when James’ access to Brigsby Bear is suddenly cut off.
In a delightful move—even if it’s one that make reviewing the film more difficult—McCary and screenwriters Mooney and Kevin Costello pull the rug out from under the premise very early on. Just as you start to feel you’re in for a Lost-style slow build of a strange but oddly familiar world, you’re thrust into another one.
That’s because Brisgby Bear isn’t interested in becoming one of the narrative puzzles fans obsess over. It’s far more concerned with advocating for who those fans are in the first place. Not only is James able to take the lessons learned from his favorite show into his new life, his strongest bonds are formed with people who like it as much as he does. Coming so soon on the heels of San Diego Comic-Con, it should be clear that such depictions of shared love for a fictional property are not Pollyannaish. These bonds are strong. And this is how many people interact with the world. Brigsby Bear wants us to see that there’s nothing wrong with that.
In fact, it’s often exactly this kind of devotion to a fictional universe that spurs people to develop one of their own that will in turn inspire another generation. As the plot progresses, James finds new purpose again in attempting to create a Brigsby Bear episode of his own. He brings people together both in the making and in the viewing of his new project, demonstrating the cyclic and symbiotic create/consume relationship.
Brigsby Bear only works as a parable, though, because it also works as a character-based, emotional narrative. McCary handles the material in a way that is thoroughly sweet without ever being cloying or cutesy. He’s able to thread that needle because, just like with Mooney’s terrific lead performance, he insists on honesty over heartstring-pulling. It’s enough to make anyone a fan.