Walking into a movie at a film festival, without knowing anything about what you’re going to see, can feel like entering an entirely new world for the first time. “Brigsby Bear” is the rare festival movie where the main character is experiencing the exact same sensation, and that creates an exhilarating viewing experience that works in the film’s favor. Whether or not this collaboration between childhood friends Dave McCary, Kevin Costello, and Kyle Mooney will hold the same appeal after marketing campaigns reveal many of the quirkiest surprises is an open question. But the eccentric, heartfelt curio is sure to attract a cult following under any conditions.
It helps that co-writer and star Mooney is cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” where he frequently collaborates with first-time feature helmer McCary. Both are founding members of the sketch troupe Good Neighbor, whose viral videos have showcased a deadpan sensibility, love of ’80s and ’90s pop culture, and knack for affectionately dismantling the dudebro lifestyle. That’s all present in “Brigsby,” which builds on the alternative comedy approach of “SNL” clips like “Miley Sex Tape” and “Inside SoCal” to deliver an utterly offbeat cinematic vision.
The less known about the plot the better, but certain details — all revealed within the opening 10 minutes or so — are necessary for the setup. Sharing a title with the favorite television show of 25-year-old James (Mooney), “Brigsby” opens with unsettling VHS footage from the show itself, which chronicles the ongoing adventures of a human-sized Teddy Ruxpin-type bear who teaches bizarre lessons like “curiosity is an unnatural emotion” and “trust only the familial unit.”
After each episode ends, James dashes off to his primitive computer to post video blogs and peruse the “Brigsby Bear” fan forums. His only human company are his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams), who, we learn soon enough, are keeping him in an underground bunker away from the rest of the world. Otherwise a reasonably well adjusted young man with a talent for math, James wonders if he’ll ever see the outside — when a conveniently timed FBI raid answers his question.
James’ parents are carted off to jail and kindly Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) offers James a Coke and tells him he’s about to meet his real parents (Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins). That’s when James’ sheltered life experience starts to clash with harsher realities of the everyday world, though it turns out the biggest adjustment of all is discovering there are no more “Brigsby Bear” episodes to watch. (The show was produced by James’ “father,” a successful toy inventor, as a brainwashing tool for an audience of one.)
From there, “Brigsby” spirals into an ode to acceptance and the creative process, as James struggles to connect with his biological family and becomes determined to produce his own “Brigsby Bear” movie. Helping him in his quest are sardonic sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins) and aspiring animator Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), who are both still in high school but far more experienced in the world than James.
Frequently cast as children on “SNL,” Mooney has perfected the sweet naiveté of youth, and his earnest portrayal of a man who grew up in isolation mines big laughs without any trace of condescension or cynicism. There’s a genuine sweetness to his performance, and the entire movie, that smartly wards off any accusations of ironic hipster posing. Rather than milking the outre premise for broad comedy, everyone involved strives to keep the characters and situations grounded and warm.
While Mooney has the most significantly fleshed out role, he and McCary have put together a terrific ensemble in which nearly every person gets a moment to shine. Standouts include Kinnear’s cop getting in touch with his inner actor, Lendeborg’s laidback buddy, Simpkins’ more weary sibling, and Kate Lyn Sheil’s diner waitress who played a key role in the “Brigsby” series.
From a crafts perspective, “Brigsby” is all aces, but special recognition should go to the art department and designers involved in creating both the world of the “Brigsby” show and the underground bunker where James grew up. Key elements from both spill over into the outside world, reinforcing the idea that even though James had a severely screwed-up childhood, the power to create remains a true gift.