Film Review: Brigsby Bear (USA, 2017) is a peculiar yet heartfelt viewing experience

When you hear a film that is green-lit and it is basically a vehicle for an SNL star, chances are that one would expect the film to be bad. Films like A Night at the Roxbury, Superstar and The Ladies Man are all garbage. That said, some of them do gain a cult following over time like Hot Rod and MacGruber, and there are also some that are genuinely funny, like the Wayne’s World films, Mean Girls and others.

So when I heard that a SNL alumni was making his lead debut in a film about a magical bear in a television show, I have to admit, I wasn’t really looking forward to it. It certainly didn’t help that the lead actor, Kyle Mooney, appeared in Zoolander 2, a film that I loathed and he played the most annoying character. So annoying that I wished his character would die and **SPOILER ALERT for Zoolander 2** when he did, I literally stood up and cheered.

Speaking about my crippled state of mind, besides my initial reservations, it helps to have an open mind about film before going in because there are projects out there that have the potential to surprise you and I hoped Brigsby Bear would do the trick. Will the magic work on me or will the film struggle to reach the bare necessities?

Kyle Mooney stars as James, an imaginative young man, who only knows in this world are his mother and father (an amusing pair with Jane Adams and Mark Hamill), the walls of the underground bunker they live in and the many VHS teachings of Brigsby Bear, a folksy talking bear whose catchphrases include “curiosity is an unnatural emotion” and “trust only the familial unit”.

But when reality unexpectedly throws him out of whack, James has to face the real world; a world he cannot understand and a new family he doesn’t know. To make things worse, he finds out that Brigsby Bear doesn’t exist on the outside, so he takes it upon himself to finish the adventures of Brigsby Bear for good with a video camera in tow.

With themes like child kidnapping, fitting in the real world, loneliness, you would expect this film to be a full-bore drama, but in the case of Brigsby Bear, it is only part of it. The rest is quirky, whimsical and humourous. Now this may sound like the makings of a recipe of sick, but director Dave McCary and lead actor/screenwriter Kyle Mooney make Brigsby Bear an absurdly charming and heartwarming, if flawed piece of work.

The main reason the film truly works is Kyle Mooney. Having doubts over him, my reservations were washed away by his stellar work. He brings the perfect mix of childlike wonder, deadpan delivery and sincerity to the role that even when he says unwitting things like wishing his sister was abducted with him so they would’ve had fun together, it becomes pretty easy to laugh at him as well as alongside him.

The fish-out-of-water scenarios that James goes through do provide ample laughs, particularly during a scene where he goes to a teenage party, where he mingles with the youth. The supporting cast all do good work with their roles like Ryan Simpkins as James’ sister, Mark Hamill as James’ father and Kate Lyn Sheil in a small role as an actress in the Brigsby Bear show.

In fact, one of the best scenes in the film involves Mooney and Sheil meeting up for the first time and the interactions between the two are both dramatically compelling and amusing. The mix of remorse and morose humour is executed perfectly, showing the film at its best.

But when the story progresses to the point when James starts filming the rest of Brigsby Bear, the film unfortunately becomes predictable to the point that it feels like its going through a laundry list of indie cliches such as the bonding scenes between the characters and even Greg Kinnear‘s character as the cop who secretly wants to be an actor; it just feels like tropes we’ve seen many times in indie films.

And the storytelling does suffer from some problems like how the two tones of seriousness and humour betray each other or worse, how the film never has as much conflicts and obstacles for James to go through. It makes the journey a little bit too easy in comparison to what James has on him as baggage, which is what makes the scene between Mooney and Sheil a relief from the predictability.

Overall, the film is a good effort for actor/screenwriter Kyle Mooney and director Dave McCary and I hope they do better work in the future, as Brigsby Bear is a heartfelt, warm and peculiar piece of work that could have been great. But hey, a little magic is better than having no magic at all, right?

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Brigsby Bear hits cinemas 26 October 2017.