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‘Brigsby Bear’ finds genuine emotion in a weird premise

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James set out to make his own Brigsby Bear film.
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Three and a half stars

Brigsby Bear Kyle Mooney, Ryan Simpkins, Jorge Lendeborg Jr. Directed by Dave McCary. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday at Sam's Town, Town Square and Village Square.

It’s a bit hard to get a handle on Brigsby Bear at first: A movie that opens with the rescue of a 25-year-old man who’s been held captive since he was kidnapped as a baby doesn’t seem to be a likely candidate for a warm-hearted comedy, and star/co-writer Kyle Mooney (of Saturday Night Live) and director Dave McCary sometimes have difficulty balancing the conflicting tones of their story. But by the end, Brigsby Bear is emotionally affecting and even joyous, without losing sight of the trauma that main character James (Mooney) has suffered.

Held in a bunker and told by his captors (whom he believes are his parents) that they’re living in a post-apocalyptic world, James has been socialized entirely by watching episodes of a surreal kid-oriented sci-fi show called Brigsby Bear. He thinks the show is a worldwide phenomenon, but in actuality it’s been produced entirely by his fake parents (played by Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) as a brainwashing tool solely for James himself. This entire bizarre setup comes in a rush at the beginning of the movie, as James is thrust into the real world following the FBI’s raid on the only home he has ever known.

Like the similar protagonist of the Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, James is a sunny, naïve optimist whose view of the world has been warped by his time in captivity. Unlike Kimmy Schmidt, he never had the chance to experience a normal life before being abducted, but he also wasn’t subjected to the kind of abuse that might make the story too dark to take. While James’ real family (parents played by Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins, younger sister played by Ryan Simpkins) attempts to make up for 25 years of lost time, all James wants to know is what happens in the next episode of Brigsby Bear.

Since the show’s creators are now in prison, James sets out to make a Brigsby Bear movie himself, with the help of his sister and her teenage friends. What started out as a comedic version of the second half of kidnapping drama Room turns into a celebration of creativity and outsider art, and it’s a little disappointing that Mooney, McCary and co-writer Kevin Costello seem to be veering away from the darkness of their premise, for something more cutesy and conventional. But James is such an endearing presence, both for the audience and for the other characters, that it’s hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm, misguided as it may be, and the movie eventually comes around to the question of whether continuing the adventures of Brigsby Bear is really a healthy coping mechanism for James.

Mooney never makes James into a pitiful or helpless figure, though, and the movie is more interested in evoking hope and wonder than sadness or despair. James has lived a tough, weird life, and he confronts it the only way he knows how. Although McCary perfectly captures the ’80s VHS aesthetic of Brigsby Bear, the movie isn’t some kind of ironic kitsch. What could have felt like a quirky throwaway sketch padded out into a feature is instead an oddly moving piece of genuine filmmaking.

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Josh Bell

Josh Bell is the film editor for Las Vegas Weekly, where he's been writing movie and TV reviews since 2002. ...

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