Brigsby Bear – movie review

by James Robins / 15 November, 2017
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Whimsy isn’t enough to save this story of child abduction and obsessive fandom.

In an underground bunker deep in the desert Ted and April Mitchum (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams), a doting couple in homespun knitwear, and their son James (Kyle Mooney) enact a charming, if odd, model of family values. Over the dinner table they shake hands instead of saying grace, and they call to each other in sing-song voices. It’s all very quaint.

James, in his mid-twenties, is infatuated with a Z-grade kids’ TV show called Brigsby Bear, whose titular hero, a furry Harry Potter, and his short-skirted sidekicks save the universe from an array of magical threats.

Each episode, of which there are hundreds, ends with the warning: “Remember! Curiosity is an unnatural emotion!”

From this clue, and others, we can guess there’s something amiss. Only after James has been sprung from the bunker by the police do we discover that Ted and April are not his parents, but his captors. We also learn that his beloved Brigsby is a show being made in a warehouse by Ted for an audience of one. He wants to placate and occupy his captive “son”.

James is forced into an expansive new world, reunited with a family he’s never known and confronted by alien customs. A hapless therapist (Claire Danes) tries to treat him, but even she doesn’t warn James about the rather creepy way he goes about assimilating: the only way he can process this rude shock is to retreat into Brigsby, trying to create a final episode with his new-found friends. His new reality is seen through the prism of his former jailer’s making. The means by which he was conditioned becomes a twee expression of liberation.

Was his captivity justified, then? This uncomfortable irony remains unacknowledged, and a late reunion has the effect of excusing, perhaps justifying, the original crime.

Even so, Brigsby Bear is torn between conflicting tones and emotions. Director Dave McCary clearly wants James’s collision with the outside world to resound with the same shattering force as Emma Donoghue’s 2015 Room, but he manages only whimsy. Nor is there satire in this collision. James merely accepts the new order of things with a deadpan, pathetic shrug.

The film attempts to express a love for the redemptive power of cinema (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl or Be Kind Rewind, for example), yet despite the whoops, cheers and slapped backs as James makes his movie, it never quite strikes a note of wonder.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★

This article was first published in the November 11, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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