Saturday, 4 November 2017

IN THEATRES: Brigsby Bear

Okay, this one's a bit complicated. DEEP BREATH.

Unknowingly kidnapped as a baby, James (Kyle Mooney) has grown up knowing only two things: the underground bunker where he lives with his 'parents' (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams), and the TV show Brigsby Bear, which is delivered to the bunker every week on old VHS tapes. Little does he know that Brigsby Bear has been created by his 'parents' as a way to manage his curiosity and imagination.

Rescued by the police and re-united with his real family, James struggles to adapt to the real world, a place which is much bigger than he is used to, and filled with things like parties, sex and movies on huge screens. The only thing that is missing is the next episode of Brigsby Bear.

Determined to know how the series ends, James realises there is only one thing he must do: finish the story of Brigsby Bear himself.

This movie is my favourite of the year so far.

There are so many elements of this story which, if portrayed in the wrong way, or with too much emphasis, could have tipped it over into simply disturbing. But the filmmakers manage to walk a tightrope, crafting an uplifting fable that never dips into overt sentiment or mawkishness. There is a melancholy to James's love for Brigsby Bear - it is both a connection to a life he cannot give up, and marks a deeper desire for self-expression that provide James with a bridge to his new life. 

The best part of James's (Kyle Mooney) trajectory is that it is entirely based on his own initiative and agency. Brigsby Bear is both the framework for his imprisonment, but it has also given James the tools he needs to break out of that framework.

At a subtextual level, the movie is an interesting examination of our relationship with cultural products. Despite its origins, Brigsby Bear is a typical children's educational programme, one which is designed with the purpose to stimulate young minds according to a specific intellectual and moral framework. What this movie emphasises is our ability to re-read and repurpose cultural products according to our own desires and beliefs (look at the po-mo resurrection of eighties action star Chuck Norris; for a more negative example, look at Pepe the frog). Despite the creators' intentions, the way an audience engages with a cultural product is never fixed. James' captors use Brigsby Bear as a vehicle for James's education and entertainment - they never consider it as a vehicle for James's own freedom of thought.

Kyle Mooney is brilliant as James. With a character as sheltered as this, it would be easy to  play him as a caricature or a joke, but Mooney roots James's awkwardness in the character's desire to learn. James is smart and caring - the tools he uses to express himself are just different from everyone around him. The movie's greatest success is that his emotional maturity is ultimately an outgrowth of his own personality. You get the sense that his resolution of Brigsby Bear is not the resolution of his own emotional journey, but an indicator that James is capable of finding his own way.

James's earnest belief in his goals is matched by his empathy and interest in other people. As someone who has grown up knowing only his 'parents', James is always open to new people and experiences. And what I loved about his characterisation is that his drive is based on a sense of empathy, a desire to connect with people. These qualities end up being the catalysts which enable his family and friends to rally around his dream of bringing Brigsby Bear to a conclusion. 

The whole cast are terrific. The great thing about all the performances is that they are all keyed into the movie's delicate handling of tone. Because the premise is based such a dark, complex issue, every component of the movie has to cater both to the hope underlying the central theme, and the complex emotional negotiations that James and his family have to go through in order to form some kind of bond.

There is an honesty about the performances of James's family (Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins and Ryan Simpkins) which provides the movie with a sense of real weight. Their roles are not showy, but they ground the movie in a sense of genuine grief and confusion that ensures that viewer is always aware of what this family has gone through. This juxtaposition between the family's tragedy with James's flights of fancy could have been an exercise in poor taste if this context were ignored or lampooned - but the filmmakers give this backstory the space it needs, and allow it to feed into the story in believable and nuanced ways (which I will not spoil).

James's collaborators are also terrific, and their interactions make for some of the movie's most deft pieces of character revelation. Jorge Leneborg Jr. is extremely likeable and believable as James's new friend Spencer, a budding young filmmaker who sees the potential in James's scheme. Alexia Demie is also good as Meredith, a young woman who brings James into the realm of adult sexuality - they share two significant scenes, and these scenes in particular exemplify the dramatic sleight of hand the script delivers.

A few random thoughts on the rest of the supporting players:

It's great to see Mark Hamill doing something this different - in addition to playing Terry, James's 'dad', he also gets to make use of his vocal talents, voicing all of the characters in Brigsby Bear. His characterisation for the show's villain bears a striking resemblance to his most famous animated role.

Greg Kinnear gets a small but scene-stealing role as Detective Vogel, a friendly cop involved with James's rescue. Beneath his bland exterior, Vogel has a secret regret: he wanted to be an actor. His re-discovery of his inner thespian is emblematic of how the movie portrays James's effect on other people: James shows an interest in his dream - with no ulterior motive - and unintentionally provides a platform for Kinnear's character to try achieving it. 

By the end of this movie, I actually wished I was the kind of person who cried at movies. This movie really hit me on a visceral level. Not only is it a study of overcoming trauma, Brigsby Bear is a tribute to the power of imagination and curiosity to enrich one's life and relationships. It is a love letter to creativity. And it is not the creativity of a single mind, but creativity as a shared, communal experience. 

Brigsby Bear is as weird and funny as you think it is, but it is also an extremely intelligent and empathetic portrayal of a man discovering the joys of human companionship. Just wonderful.

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