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Non-Review Review: Brigsby Bear

Brigsby Bear is a sweet, if slightly uneven, ode to the act of reclaiming problematic art.

The concept of Brigsby Bear is simple. James Pope is a twenty-something-year-old manchild who has grown sheltered from the outside world, living with his parents in a converted shelter locked away from the world. James’ only interaction with the outside world is through the internet, where he maintains contact with fans of the only show still broadcast on the airwaves, the eponymous anthropomorphised bear.

Bearing his soul.

However, one day James discovers that this is all an elaborate lie, that the world does not work the way that he thought it did. Brigsby Bear is positioned at the centre of this betrayal, with James discovering that the show was never what it appeared to be. As James struggles to come to terms with the reality of his situation, he finds himself struggling to make peace with the bear at the centre of these amateurish and endearing morality plays.

Brigsby Bear suffers from tonal issues, struggling to balance the darkness at its core with the whimsy on its surface. However, the movie plays as a compelling study of trauma and recovery, of the power of fannish obsession, and the art of taking back art that has been tainted or undermined by subsequent revelations. Indeed, Brigsby Bear is arguably more relevant now than it was when it was produced.

“Disney are really going to extremes to stop me leaking details on The Last Jedi.”

The biggest problems with Brigsby Bear have to do with setting the right mood. The movie conforms to the familiar indie movie template of eccentric characters dancing around some horrific central trauma, the template of countless low-budget films following on from the success of Little Miss Sunshine. These movies occasion struggle to pitch themselves at the right level between bleak and buoyant. Brigsby Bear occasionally suffers from these issues.

Brigsby Bear reveals what happened to James Pope rather early in the film, and it is a powerful game-changing reveal. It represents an existential challenge to everything that James understands about himself. More than that, it dramatically undercuts his relationship with his family, changing the dynamic and introducing all manner of emotional complications into his feelings towards them. There is a sense that James could never have lived through his experience without accruing scarred tissue.

“We arrested you for being Coked up.”

Brigsby Bear occasionally hints at these complications and these nuances, most notably in small throwaway lines that suggest how divorced James has become from the world around him. There is a beautiful small exchange between characters played by Matt Walsh and Greg Kinnear which underscores just how messed up the situation is, and how troublesome James’ relationship with the eponymous cosmic superhero might be. However, that moment is quickly undercut by James’ boyish enthusiasm, for a clever juxtaposed laugh.

James adapts rather well to the outside world in Brigsby Bear, perhaps an expression of the film’s optimism and hope. Brigsby Bear makes a conscious choice not to focus on James as a victim, but instead chart his path back to something resembling a healthy relationship with his upbringing. However, this creates several tonal and plotting problems when the script needs to introduce plotting complications and hurdles for James and the people around him. James’ difficulties seem more like those of an overgrown innocent child than somebody working through trauma.

Bear with me.

Still, Brigsby Bear is charming enough to most circumnavigate these potential problems. The biggest issues created by this lack of focus on James’ internal psychology is that many members of the supporting cast feel superfluous or unnecessary, characters who exist to explore a facet of James in which the movie is not particularly invested. Claire Danes is cast as a psychologist named Emily who is invested in James, but she finds herself reduced to exposition because James is so closed off. Andy Samberg has a small role late in the film mostly relayed through montage.

In contrast, Brigsby Bear is most invested in the characters outside of James who are inspired by him, the characters who react to James’ presence and his enthusiasm by trying to bring something magical into the work. Mark Hamill is cast as Ted, James’ father who is revealed as the voice behind Brigsby Bear, and whose charisma elevates a fairly underdeveloped role. Greg Kinnear has a more well-rounded arc as a former actor who is inspired to take up the craft once again. Jorge Lendeborg Jr. anchors James as his new best friend and camera man.

Acting out.

Brigsby Bear works best when exploring the power of esoteric fandom. At one point in the film, James accidentally compares his beloved make-believe childhood show to Star Trek, but it seems like Doctor Who might be a closer analogy. The Brigsby Bear episodes are weird and eccentric. One character involved muses that she was assured that the show was being produced for “Canadian Public Access Television”, a reflection on both the surreality of the show and the low-budget cardboard-and-tinfoil aesthetic.

However, James responds to the innocence and the idealism of Brigsby Bear. Indeed, one of the film’s more charming subplots suggests that Brigsby Bear finds an audience through the internet and social media, that this oddity could be shared with the larger world. Brigsby Bear becomes a tether through which James might make sense of the world around him, something eccentric that allows others a glimpse into how he perceives things to be.

Movie magic.

Brigsby Bear is an endearing fable about the joys of sharing one’s passion. James tries to make sense of the world by sharing his love of Brigsby Bear with the larger world. Vogel opens up to the world around him by sharing his dreams of becoming a beloved actor. (“It’s sad that you didn’t get to do the things you wanted to do,” James earnestly reflects upon Vogel’s thwarted ambitions.) After struggling to connect with his sister for an extended portion of the movie, James finally bonds with her over their passions; her love of music alien to him, his fandom of a show alien to her.

All of this serves to make Brigsby Bear endearing. There is a sense that lead actor and co-writer Kyle Mooney understands the appeal of shared enthusiasms, even for weird fringe subculture stuff. However, Brigsby Bear is elevated for its exploration of the process of reclaiming problematic art. Early in the film, James discovers that Brigsby Bear was not what he thought it to be, that it represented a betrayal of the core principles that James had internalised from it.

Brigsby in the Brig.

In some ways, Brigsby Bear reflects the challenges of appreciating and loving classic pop culture in the modern age. Increasingly, beloved artifacts of pop culture seem tainted by outside forces. Recent scandals in Hollywood have led audiences to raise uncomfortable questions about what it means to enjoy art produced by monsters; the films produced by the Weinstein Company, the movies directed by Woody Allen. This is not a new challenge by any measure; Roman Polanski seems to produce his own ethical obstacle course to navigate.

However, the problems do not even need to be so literal and so anchored to the production team. A lot of art has aged poorly in certain respects, seeming outdated and offensive to modern sensibilities. Indeed, Brigsby Bear makes a point to lampoon the absurdity of moral baked into children’s television, with James receiving absurdly specific instruction from his television idol. Many episodes of Star Trek are marred by racism or sexism. Perhaps the most beloved story of classic Doctor Who, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, features copious amounts of yellow face.

“You’ve seen K-Pac, right? Actually, you probably shouldn’t see K-Pac.”

How do modern audiences approach these hurdles, these distasteful or uncomfortable elements at the heart of beloved stories? Brigsby Bear plays as a metaphor for these challenges and these hurdles, as James struggles to reclaim a character who was used to exploit and manipulate him. James ultimately decides that the only way to make peace with his past is not to bury Brigsby Bear, but to reclaim the character; to work through those problems, to reinvent that talking bear on his own terms.

There is something very heartwarming in this idea, that James can effectively repurpose something that was used to victimise him, fashion that bear into something hopeful and something useful. Brigsby Bear offers an optimistic and hopeful approach to problematic art, suggesting that it is possible to love something so deeply flawed and that such narratives can be repurposed and reused to come to terms with past mistakes.

Brigsby Bear occasional struggles to hit the right notes, but it always sings from the heart. That carries the film a long way.

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