Superfans are having their moment (and if you’re pessimistic about this, you might replace “moment” with “age” or “era”). Not only are their favorite stories being administered regularly by the major studios, dominating multiplexes and displacing a more varied mainstream cinema, their inner psychologies are now being examined in indie movies and documentaries.
“Saturday Night Live” writer-director Dave McCary’s feature debut “Brigsby Bear” — which stars fellow “SNL” colleague Kyle Mooney — is one such ode to community born of obsession (and, to some extent, placating that obsession). Although it plays it a little safe with some thorny situations and emotions, the film has a gentle soul overall. When it doesn’t work, it coasts on good-naturedness. You might even be startled at how that kind of vibe can make heartfelt consistency seem like a decent enough replacement for fully engaged art.
The first feeling one gets, however — not unlike the start of a silly “SNL” sketch — is of being trapped in the mind of a social misfit who’s about to be ridiculed for his quirks. James (Mooney) is a dweebish-looking, bespectacled young man living in a domed desert bunker with his protective parents (Jane Adams & Mark Hamill). He’s perfectly happy to sit in his videocassette-bedecked bedroom poring over countless episodes of a cheesy-looking children’s sci-fi show called “Brigsby Bear.”
On first glance, the series plays like a cross between a Tim & Eric cable-access goof and a home video from the imagined hallucinogen-inspired files of Sid & Marty Krofft. James’s attention-grabbing passion — new installments of which arrive on VHS tape every week — stars a heroic intergalactic talking bear with twin females for companions; an angry-faced, hovering orb called Sunsnatcher for an antagonist; and lessons in math, science and morality that don’t pertain to the usual educational TV standards. One motto, printed on a Brigsby poster in James’s merch-adorned room, is “Curiosity is an unnatural emotion.”
That’s your first clue something is up in the strange, ’80s-tech-frozen circumstances of James’s secluded existence, which we soon learn (when police and the feds barge in) has been the product of a kidnapping at birth. His “dad” was making “Brigsby” all by himself, for decades, for an audience of one.
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While James remains outwardly calm as the supervising detective (Greg Kinnear) and a friendly therapist (Claire Danes) help introduce him to his birth parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins) and new sister (Ryan Simpkins, “The House”), James is most rattled by the revelation that there won’t be any more “Brigsby” episodes. Adjusting to reality is one thing, but the end of the fantasy that held him together is something else entirely.
It’s admittedly brazen to tell the story of the fallout from long-term captivity that centers itself emotionally on a situation akin to Marvel Comics closing up shop. (Casting fandom icon Hamill is as winking as it gets on that front.) If fusing literal and figurative abduction sounds wryly funny to you, you might laugh at the awkward humor McCary and Mooney (who co-wrote with Kevin Costello) wring from James’s hesitant acclimation to people, outside air, and what to do about an all-consuming space narrative cut short (albeit after 736 episodes).
But if you’re looking for something that addresses the complexities of trauma and upended families, “Brigsby Bear” might seem as deep as an older-generation sitcom’s Very Special Episode, and even potentially irritating in its breezy, seriocomic cutesiness.
And yet the solution to James’s dilemma — creating his own Brigsby movie, with new friends (led by Jorge Lendeborg Jr from “Spider-Man: Homecoming” as an energetic, camera-savvy partner) who are charmed by a nostalgic, outsider art with its own painstaking mythology — is as old as the “let’s put on a show” trope of cornpone, spit-and-polish Hollywood past. Perhaps not surprisingly, it still works. Though not as oddball inventive or naturally whimsical as Michel Gondry’s homage circus “Be Kind Rewind,” its low-gear celebration of fandom-inspired ingenuity, and belief in the power of creating as a reparative balm, earns it enough well-deserved smiles when things fall predictably into place in the latter stages.
The well-meaning actors are like a company of comedians waiting patiently their turn to pull on heartstrings, and it’s hard to fault that kind of feel-good eagerness. Mooney, who seems to relish a deadpan delivery that fuses ambitious positivity and cluelessness, does a fine job leading this alt-schmaltz brigade, and nicely underplays the movie’s most layered scene, in which James seeks out the woman (the great Kate Lyn Shiel, “House of Cards”) who played the twins in the video loop of his childhood, and discovers a waitress making ends meet.
“Brigsby Bear” will surely alienate those who’ve had enough of man-children, nerd bliss-outs, and pop-culture obsessives. The truth is that McCary, Mooney and Costello are friends who like weird stuff, who made a movie about weird stuff, within which is the making of a movie about weird stuff, and how it can bring people together. That’s real enough of an equation for the filmmakers. And if they don’t actually have an actual “Brigsby Bear” episode ready for the DVD, I’d be shocked.