Growing up in a sealed habitat with his parents, Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams), James’ (Kyle Mooney) only connection with the wider world is the children’s television show, Brigsby Bear, which is still in production in their presumably post-apocalyptic world. A pseudo-Sid and Marty Krofft affair with talking animals, psychedelic production design, and a sprawling and intricate internal mythology, Brigsby Bear is the font from which all of James’ education flows, and he is an obsessive fan of the show.
Unfortunately, it’s not real. None of it is, as James learns to his dismay and confusion when the police raid their remote compound. James was kidnapped as a baby and raised in isolation, completely cut off from the real world for reasons which are never fully explored, and the show was manufactured by his faux-father as a kind of experimental teaching aid. James is returned to his real parents, Greg (Martin Walsh) and Louise (Michaela Watkins), and meets his teenage sister, Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins) for the first time, but reintegrating into the real world is fraught with difficulty.
James is in his 20s, by the way, which makes this a lot less cute than it might come across at first taste.
The central conceit here is “man-child obsessed with retro pop culture touches the hearts of friends and family”, which is a pretty well worn trope by this stage of the game, but rarely has it been done so mawkishly and insincerely. In a time when grown men are having heated online arguments about female Ghostbusters and fervently hoping for a Masters of the Universe movie that “gets it right,” do we really need a feature-length screed in defence of the infantilisiation of pop culture and the magic of fannish obsession?
That is, at the end of the day, what Brigsby Bear is, and while early in the piece there’s an intriguing tension between James’ singular, Brigsby-centric worldview and the complexities of the suburban life he is thrust into, it gradually becomes clear that the film is firmly in James’ corner: everything would be better if everyone just saw the world how he sees it, and helped him do whatever he wants to do, which is make a feature-length Brigsby Bear movie to finish off the show’s long-running storyline. James’ obsession stops being a handicap and becomes the mechanism by which he gains acceptance and friendship, teaming up with local budding auteur Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) to shoot the thing, and even enlisting local cop Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) to his cause, who not only acts in the movie but steals props from the evidence locker (all the Brigsby ephemera is, of course, evidence in the kidnapping case).
The film barely spares a thought for Greg and Louise, obviously tortured by James’ crippling case of arrested development and trying desperately to create a space where they can communicate meaningfully with him, but in this world that means doing what James wants and helping him make his movie. Everything improves when people fall in line. The idea that just maybe James’ poor socialisation and infantile fixation are real problems is barely given lip service; it’s the world that must change to accommodate James, not the other way around – ultimately, our protagonist learns almost nothing, making our main dramatic arc more of a flat plane.
There are strong performances here – Kinnear, Hamill, and Lendeborg stand out – and if you’re burdened with an utterly uncritical appreciation of whimsy or unearned sentimentality, then those buttons are going to get pushed good and hard. That doesn’t change the fact that Brigsby Bear is an empty exercise, a twee celebration of immaturity, and no amount of retro posturing can disguise the hollow solipsism at its core.