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Fantasia 2017 Review: ‘Brigsby Bear’ Finds Power in Dreams Once Birthed in Nightmares

2017’s Fantasia Film Festival runs July 13th through August 2nd.
By  · Published on July 18th, 2017

2017’s Fantasia Film Festival runs July 13th through August 2nd.

James (Kyle Mooney) is a typical twentysomething in many ways. Well, in one way — he’s in his twenties. Beyond that though he’s in a world of his own, almost quite literally. He lives in a bunker with his parents, Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams), where they protect him from the toxic world outside. He’s kept occupied with chores, meal time, and weekly episodes of the only television show he’s ever known, Brigsby Bear Adventures.

Except none of it is real. The people he believes to be his parents actually abducted him from a hospital shortly after he was born, a fact he discovers after an F.B.I. raid frees him from captivity, but his rescue comes with a whole new set of challenges. His biological family — dad (Matt Walsh), mom (Michaela Watkins), and teenage sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins) — struggle to bring him back into the world, but James is understandably off-kilter. The only calming source in his world is the promise of new episodes of Brigsby… but Brigsby was a show made by Ted and April exclusively for him.

Room it’s not, but Brigsby Bear still approaches the subject of abduction and eventual escape with just enough seriousness even as it focuses on more comedic thoughts and elements. Director Dave McCary and writers Kevin Costello and Mooney deliver a joyful story about family, friends, and the creative drive inherent in the artists around us. Think The Truman Show but with a show no one else has seen and a lead who’s slightly more unhinged.

The film recognizes the heavy crime committed, but the focus remains on James as opposed to the couple’s post-arrest situation. It allows for a lighter tone as he discovers a world of parties, girls, and a seemingly endless supply of shows and films. Their existence, and the realization that they weren’t all made by a single person, encourages his own film-making desires that ultimately serve as both closure and the opening of a new chapter. It’s simple and obvious at times, but it’s deftly handled by all involved lending the film and James himself an air of sweetness in the light of the tragedy and awkward recovery.

That line between light and dark can be a tough one to walk, but the film manages it well by allowing laughs to bubble up from some potentially bleak places. Some comedy runs broad while other jokes lean heavy into the blackly comic, but we’re kept grounded by the film’s small scale and focus. It’s ultimately an underdog tale filled with setbacks and triumphs, and while its opening stakes are high what follows is a more relaxed and understandable journey. Happily the film also sidesteps some expected beats as James finds almost exclusively kindness in his new world. There are plenty of hurdles to overcome, but we’re never subjected to the typical scene of bullying or other such cruelties. James is an oddity, but the film’s characters see him as worthy of compassion rather than of ridicule. It’s a refreshing reality and pairs well with Brigsby’s lessons on kindness, bettering yourself, and limiting your daily self-pleasuring to twice per day.

Mooney is good, and while the role doesn’t ask too much of him he holds the screen with his comic delivery and dry energy. The supporting cast — also including Kate Lyn SheilClair Danes and Andy Samberg — has the advantage of being far more seasoned, and they bring their considerable talents to bear with Greg Kinnear standing out as a detective with forgotten dreams of being an actor.

Brigsby Bear starts in a deceptively pleasant nightmare before shifting gears to focus on dreams, and it’s a sweetly funny and uplifting trip.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.