In the new movie Brigsby Bear, James Pope’s favorite TV show is the kind of throwback piece of ’80s children’s entertainment that you could see easily catching on with a new generation. Shown exclusively on low-quality VHS, Brigsby Bear Adventures is a surreal blend of fantasy and educational programming of the sort that used to litter the Saturday morning television landscape. The program sees the magical anthropomorphic bear Brigsby doing battle with an evil wizard in the moon while also teaching multiplication. But the show, and its star, isn’t real—not even within the world of Dave McCary’s debut film, written by Kyle Mooney and Kevin Costello.
Brigsby Bear Adventures is an elaborate fake, a nifty brainwashing tool designed to keep the 25-year-old James (Mooney) happy and sedate in the underground bunker he’s lived in his entire life. As the film begins, James is rescued from his “parents” Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams) by the FBI and told that he was in fact kidnapped as a baby from his real mother and father, Greg (Matt Walsh) and Louise (Michaela Watkins). That revelation is somewhat beside the point to James, though—his real concern is Brigsby, the only friend he’s ever had, who, it turns out, was sprung entirely from the strange minds of his captors.
If that sounds like a labored plot setup, credit to Mooney and Costello for laying it out quite simply and letting the details remain relatively obscure. Brigsby Bear sticks firmly to the perspective of James, who almost refuses to engage with the “real world” he’s suddenly been launched into, mostly out of self-preservation. What Ted and April wanted with a child is never really important, nor is James’s relationship with his actual parents, who look on in panic as he babbles to them about a made-up television show. Brigsby Bear is really just a story about how people relate to the entertainment that helped raised them—and how simultaneously pure and destructive that relationship can be.
So much pop culture today trades on the imagery of ’80s favorites: Think of Stranger Things and The Americans, not to mention the slew of classics like Ghostbusters and Blade Runner being remade and given sequels. McCary, who is a director at Saturday Night Live and was part of the “Good Neighbor” comedy group that helped launch Mooney’s career, excels at mimicking the visual patina of whatever specific property he’s parodying. The clips of Brigsby Bear Adventures, down to the halting visual effects and heavy plot reliance on dei ex machina, are pitch-perfect and doled out in small enough segments to never grow tiring.
But the movie works because of the quiet undercurrent of menace to the whole thing—the goofy, but still disturbing, idea that this gentle-seeming show was built to control James, and did too good a job. In the brief glimpse we get of James’s life underground, Ted and April are nudging him to help them solve some convoluted mathematical equation, but James’s Brigsby obsession has run rampant, ultimately distracting him from whatever cultish activity it was originally supposed to help direct him toward. Above ground, Brigsby is still all James can talk about, and his new friends (a bunch of teenagers he meets through his despairing sister) are fascinated with his fake pop-culture artifact.
The plot sees James trying to make his own film, a proper conclusion to the Brigsby saga, now that his fake father can no longer complete the series from prison. In doing so, he’s liberating this weird show from all of its restrictions and becoming a sort of YouTube-era Ed Wood by making a genuine work of outsider art. He sweeps all of his new friends and family into his obsession, including the cop (Greg Kinnear) who rescued him and who nurses a long-dormant acting bug.
McCary largely sticks to that mild tone for most of the movie, rather than relying on heavy-handed references to the underlying creepiness of the material. James never becomes “normal,” per se, though the people around him accept him for who he is and come to respect his artistic obsession. But the film does struggle to keep hold of its tone, becoming a little too blandly optimistic in its final act. Brigsby Bear Adventures is supposed to be a reflection of culture through two different mirrors: James’s innocent love of adventure and his captors’ more sinister aims. But by the end of the movie, the show is just another future YouTube artifact to be pored over by youths in search of new forms of kitsch.
It’s hard to fault Mooney and Costello for choosing the sweeter path—the movie is, after all, told through James’s eyes, and he has only the dimmest awareness of the wrongs that have been done to him over the years. Brigsby Bear succeeds at feeling like more than an expanded Saturday Night Live sketch, or a simple piece of nostalgia. It’s a minor, but solid, entrant into the sub-genre of “bad filmmaking as art,” a tale of a story within a story that knows the power of any work of fiction, no matter how niche.