Whether or not you have been paying attention to the career of Kyle Mooney, Brigsby Bear will come as an enchanting surprise. If you don’t watch Saturday Night Live, you probably don’t know Mooney at all. If you do, you would expect his first starring role in a film to be some sort of acerbic cringe comedy, with Mooney playing the kind of aloof, detached character he has specialized in over his four-year tenure at SNL. Instead, he may have just made the most sincere film of the year and one of the most sweetly enjoyable.
Brigsby Bear opens like some mash-up of The Truman Show and the awful Brendan Fraser vehicle Blast from the Past. James (Mooney) is a 25-year-old man-child who has lived nearly his entire life in an underground bunker. His parents, who we quickly learn stole him from a hospital as a baby, keep James underground through a series of TV episodes revolving around a Barney-like bear. Although James doesn’t know it, his parents write and produce these videos themselves, and each one contains a lesson designed to keep James how he is, perpetually uninterested in the world above ground. They even have merch: above James’s bed is a Brigsby-adorned sign reading, “Curiosity is an Unnatural Emotion.”
James is happy in his shelter, where he immerses himself in the world of Brigsby, re-watching the videos that are delivered to him each week to discover hidden secrets and unifying theories. By night, he hangs out in a Brigsby chat room where he shares ideas and opinions with other fans that are later revealed to be fictions created by his dad (even the girl James has a crush on). In this summer season of superhero franchises and cinematic universes, James’s journey resonates with meaning. He’s a superfan whose whole existence revolves around a single piece of pop culture. He eagerly awaits the next episode of Brigsby like Marvel fans await the next Avengers movie. He’s a fanboy in an insular world, and it’s just fine with him.
It’s not, however, fine with the world at large. When the FBI comes knocking on his door and James is returned to the world as a vastly unprepared adult, he is met with a roster of authority figures who want him to leave Brigsby in the past. A kind but dutiful cop (Greg Kinnear); a stern, well-meaning psychiatrist (Claire Danes); and, of course, his natural-born parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), who struggle admirably with trying to ease his transition to the real world without ripping away the one thing that makes him happy.
You’ll notice a pattern here: everyone in Brigsby Bear is a good person. We don’t see that so much in independent films, which—and I’m speaking very broadly here—tend to focus on people’s flaws rather than their virtues. James certainly has some difficulties interacting with others; his new sister, when she takes him to a party, tells him to “just be normal and don’t embarrass me.” But the film, directed by first-timer Dave McCary, gives her and everyone else an opportunity for redemption, and most of them take it.
It is a nearly utopian vision of art, nostalgia, and fandom. For some, Brigsby Bear might feel saccharine or sentimental, but it is a worthwhile antidote to the cynicism that we often apply to Hollywood franchises, comic book nerdom, and, heck, the world beyond them. Something about Brigsby brings out the best in people, their lightness and their empathy. We can learn from that. The world isn’t so bad as long as Brigsby Bear is in it.
Brigsby Bear opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.