In 2015, Lenny Abrahamson’s Room was released, being lauded for its two central performances; in the same year, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl won acclaim for its quirky depiction of unfortunate circumstances. Two years later, we have a composite of these two films, Brigsby Bear, one that fails to capture neither the gut-punching emotion of the former or the whimsical charm of the latter.
The title refers to the children’s television character that James (Kyle Mooney) idolises as he grows up – due to his shackled upbringing in an underground home, the show offers his only interaction with the outside world. It turns out that his presumed parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) actually abducted him as a child, with the male capturer creating the show for his ‘son’s’ intellectual development. After James is finally found after 25 years, he returns to the comforts of civilised society, intent on filming a fitting finale for the character who is so integral to his life.
Initial interactions with his birth family are understandably fraught with awkwardness; Mooney, who co-wrote the screenplay, adeptly conveys the insecurities of a newfound lifestyle, struggling to find his place in a world that is ultimately alien to him. Not helped by the fact his sister (Ryan Simpkins) bizarrely treats him with hostility, he tags along to her parties, enrapturing Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr) and Meredith (Alexa Demie) with his excitable personality and unwavering enthusiasm for living life to the fullest.
It’s Spencer’s filmmaking background that facilitates James’ ambition to complete his odyssey; whilst initial sequences of the production process are somewhat tender, they quickly begin to feel tedious, with the central gimmick of the narrative never fully convincing. His therapist (Claire Danes) and parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), much like the audience, fail to see how these escapades will contribute to his wellbeing, but this is hastily left aside for the convenience of the plot, rendering the unfolding events as weightless. The rest of the community is seemingly just as eager to complete the film as James is; Greg Kinnear’s Detective Vogel – once an aspiring actor – willingly hands over the costumes to help with the production despite the fact they’re pieces of evidence in an ongoing investigation.
If the repetitive nature of the plot is a hindrance, then so is the repetition of jokes; after a few initial light chuckles, James begins to imitate phrases that become increasingly irritating given their excessive usage. Bewilderingly, the film refrains from exploring how its central character can possibly be integrated into society; instead of focusing on its James’ anguish and pain, it showcases his kookiness and wide-eyed wonder, failing to establish an emotional connection. James doesn’t so much confront his demons, but rather give them a lift to filming sites, these trips becoming more frequent as the narrative gradually gravitates towards the fictional bear.
There are commendable qualities here; a touching scene involving one of the actresses from the original show highlights the disparity between their respective outlooks on life, providing some conflict in a film sorely lacking it. The house party also proves to be the most consistent passage in terms of laughs; for a brief moment, James forgets his past troubles and embraces the moment, electing to converse with the people around him instead of focusing on his quest. He makes bad lifestyle choices whilst there, but crucially, he tries to fit in – frustratingly, this more humane side is predominantly left by the wayside.
Everything here is well intentioned, with the life-affirming tone being consistent barring a calamitous climactic scene; the need to neatly tie up the narrative results in a huge swaying of its moral compass, embracing the very thing that had previously been condemned, meaning the final message comes across as questionable instead of feelgood. At one point, James ventures off into the woods to shoot the next part of his project, a fitting summation of the film in general. He can’t go anywhere new without his past trundling behind him, thereby creating a curious predicament; given that the theme of imagination is crucial to James’ betterment, one can’t help but wonder why the filmmakers have failed to take their own advice.