'Brigsby Bear': Film Review | Sundance 2017

A charming, surprisingly underplayed paean to pop-culture obsession.

'SNL's' Kyle Mooney plays a man raised in captivity in Dave McCary's comic debut.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt meets Be Kind Rewind in Dave McCary's feature debut Brigsby Bear, where a man raised since infancy in an underground bunker tries to cope with his new freedom by re-creating the kiddie TV series that sustained him all those lonely years. Kyle Mooney (a longtime McCary collaborator on Saturday Night Live and elsewhere) is winning in the lead role, naive but not cartoonishly so in a film that walks a fine line, credibility-wise. Some will view its quirks as commercial liabilities, but Sony Pictures Classics disagrees, having snapped the pic up during the fest for summer release.

We meet Mooney's James in the final days of his bunker life, a weird existence in which the captors he believes to be his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) teach him exotic (likely made-up) mathematics and instill in him a terror of the supposedly toxic world aboveground. (Some fanciful, Michel Gondry-like touches here are later explained by the revelation that Hamill's character was a famous toy inventor.) Then James is rescued in a coordinated raid, and Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) cautiously reunites him with his real parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), who've searched for him all these years.

After some sincere but shaky attempts to enter society — most eventfully, when he goes to a high school kegger with his resentful "new" sister, Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins) — James has a revelation when Dad takes him to the movies: He had previously believed that Brigsby Bear, a hokey serial (secretly made by Hamill) in which a man-sized teddy bear repeatedly saved the galaxy with his twin-sister sidekicks, represented the entirety of audiovisual entertainment, but the multiplex offers an endless array. Can just anyone make one of those, he asks? Soon he is setting out to teach himself filmmaking and produce a big-screen conclusion to Brigsby's years-long adventure.

Mooney and Kevin Costello's screenplay doesn't poke too much fun at James' misunderstandings of the modern world — though it's amusing, when he learns to type questions into a web search engine, that he also types in a thank-you for the answers he receives — and instead focuses on how his new sense of purpose becomes infectious. One of Aubrey's cooler friends, Jorge Lendeborg Jr.'s Spencer, turns out to be an aspiring CGI artist and is the first to appreciate the outsider-art weirdness of the Brigsby tapes James shows him. (Spencer puts some episodes on YouTube, where a cult of fans embraces the character.) After managing to get the bear suit and some props James' kidnapper used to make the show, the two young men carefully script and storyboard a project that will help James bond with new friends.

Produced in part by the Lonely Island trio, the film understands what it feels like to have an attachment to a certain piece of pop culture that is deeper, perhaps disturbingly so, than anyone around you. The impulse that leads a better-adjusted person to make parodies is a sibling to the one that inspires fan films; in his guileless way, James has leapfrogged many social conventions to live his dream. Naturally, the grown-ups around him will furrow their brows, then object, then do counterproductive things in the hopes of making James normal. Naturally, Brigsby Bear will overcome these obstacles.

Production companies: 3311 Productions, Kablamo, The Lonely Island, Lord Miller, YL Pictures

Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Cast: Kyle Mooney, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Claire Danes, Ryan Simpkins, Greg Kinnear, Mark Hamill, Alexa Demie, Beck Bennett, Chance Crimin, Jane Adams, Kate Lyn Sheil, Andy Samberg

Director: Dave McCary

Screenwriters: Kevin Costello, Kyle Mooney

Producers: Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer, William Rosenberg, Phil Lord, Chris Miller, Will Allegra, Mark Roberts, Al Di, Jason Zaro

Executive producers: P. Jennifer Dana, Phil Hoelting, Lian Hua

Director of photography: Christian Sprenger

Production designer: Brandon Tonner-Connolly

Costume designer: Sarah Mae Burton

Editor: Jacob Craycroft

Composer: David Wingo

Casting directors: Courtney Sheinin, Nicole Daniels

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

96 minutes