'Brigsby Bear' Review [2017 Fantasia Film Festival]

Brigsby Bear has ample opportunity to fall in the realm of the insensitive or crass, based on its central plot. The subject matter of the new big screen comedy (screened at the 2017 Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal) often borders on risqué. Without yet giving too much away, the film’s rather original concept has usually been associated with serious dramas in the past. Despite the seemingly silly exterior put on by the film's title and bear mascot, Brigsby Bear actually tackles something serious. The film and the people behind it (Saturday Night Live’s Kyle Mooney, who stars in the film and co-wrote it along with Kevin Costello, and director Dave McCary, a colleague of Mooney’s on SNL and previously of the sketch comedy group Good Neighbor) manage to achieve greatness and become one of the best comedies of the year (so far) by toeing the line the fine line that comes with its concept and putting together a genuinely hilarious film that harkens back to a different era of this style of comedy.

It’s hard to really talk about this film outside of generalities without giving too much of the plot away, so consider the next few paragraphs to be spoiler territory.

The film stars Mooney as James, who was kidnapped as a young child and raised in an underground bunker under the guise that the world has become a post-apocalyptic wasteland. His captors shelter him from the world with lies and some weirdly specific cult-like stuff, most notably a children's show filmed entirely by his fake dad Ted (Mark Hamill). James is the only person who has ever seen the show, and he's obsessed with it and considers his life to be normal. When he's freed by the police and Ted goes to jail, there's no more weekly episodes of Brigsby, which makes James' transition back to his life with his original family extra difficult.

When James bonds with his father at a movie theater, and then with one of his sister's friends, who is an aspiring filmmaker, he chooses to make a Brigsby Bear movie as a coping mechanism of sorts, in order to lend closure to the story his fake dad never got to finish. James is inherently living in a fantasy world, much to the dismay of his real parents parents (Matth Walsh and Michaela Watkins, his therapist (Claire Danes) and the police (Greg Kinnear, as well as Mooney’s SNL cohort Beck Bennett) as they struggle to understand and accept what James has to go through in order to leave his previous life behind.

As you can imagine, it’s pretty difficult to pull off a comedy about a horror that so many parents have to go through, especially when presented through the lens of the manchild style of comedy. Kidnapping and all the crime that surrounds it is very serious, so taking it likely for the sake of laughs might not necessarily be the right idea. And it might be why we've never really seen this kind of comedy before. But somehow, Brigsby Bear manages to find a balance. The key is probably in Ted’s good intensions as a captor, and how outside of a general trauma and level of escapism, James is actually fine coming out of it. The film is adamant about how Ted and his wife never actually hurt James, and how they truly cared for him. It also fully accepts that the experience fucked James up, despite the fact that it wasn't as horrible an experience as kidnapping could be. Despite his childlike candor and excitement, James constantly does things that aren't okay, since he hasn’t been exposed to society. He breaks the law, he builds a bomb at one point, he’s inconsiderate to the feelings of others; he’s the kind of manchild you’d expect from a movie like this, but there’s a sincerity and innocence to him that sets him apart from the usual kind of movie manchild, without sacrificing relatability or how down to earth he is. Similarly, the film manages to capture sincerity in the people around James, like his new friends who are totally and sincerely into the idea of making a weird movie. At the end of the day, James is just that kid inside all of us that got way too into a show or cartoon, who hides behind media after a traumatic experience. It's a movie, of course, so the situation finds an extreme, but it definitely works on that level.

All this is a sign, of course, of clever screenwriting and competent directing, which is particularly impressive when you consider most involved are first-timers for this level of filmmaking. It probably helps that the crew had the producing help of the likes of Andy Samberg and The Lonely Island, as well as now veteran comedic filmmakers Phil Lord & Chris Miller. Those guys were also able to bring on the aforementioned impressive cast, boasting not only the comedic talents of often under-appreciated actors like Walsh and Watkins, but also the legitimate starpower of Hamill, Danes and Kinnear, who are just bright enough to give real weight to the film without distracting from it. Kinnear bears the brunt of the work, as he’s ever-present well throughout the film, while Danes only pops up for a few scenes.

That being said, it's Hamill who really shines among them. He's not in the film for long, but he looms over the film as its subtle villain, both as Ted the kidnapper, and the characters in the show that he created for James. It's impressive and inspired casting, not only because of Hamill's underrated talent and ability to toe that line between good and evil in his performances over the years, but also because the Brigsby show has a lot of voice acting, and Hamill is one of the all-time great voice actors. It's as if they build the role around Hamill despite how integral he is to the film yet also how he's not really in it that much. It adds a lot to the movie.

Brigsby Bear is a comedy that gets a lot right, and very little wrong, and that makes it the kind of hidden gem of a comedy that will likely find a cult following and a place in the canon. Great performances, great lines, and a well-crafted story make Brigsby Bear a winner, and it gets 9.5 fake kids shows out of 10.