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Brigsby Bear (2017) starring Kyle Mooney and Mark Hamill

A TV show with only one viewer

Kyle Mooney plays James, a man living a childlike existence in an underground desert home with two people whom he believes to be his parents: Ted (Mark Hamill) and April Mitchum (Jane Adams). They have told him that the air outside is too polluted to be breathable, thus necessitating them wearing gas masks outside and meaning that James can’t venture far away. However, they keep him occupied indoors with endless VHS tapes of a show called Brigsby Bear which features a man in a bear costume who educates his young viewers while saving the galaxy from an evil talking moon called Sunsnatcher. Having been exposed to little else during his life, James is a huge fan and runs a Facebook page dedicated to his hero.

Everything changes, however, when the police raid the location, arresting Ted and April and taking James away. The next morning at the police station, the chief officer on the case - Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) - explains that Ted and April kidnapped him at a very young age and have kept him isolated from the real world ever since. He then reunites him with his real parents Greg (Matt Walsh) and Louise Pope (Michaela Watkins), and younger sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins). His “new” family, with the help of psychiatrist Emily (Claire Danes), attempts to readjust him to normal life.

However, when they explain that his favourite show Brigsby Bear was, in fact, created by Ted purely for James’s consumption and has never been shown to the outside world until now, he finds it difficult to handle. He is inspired to create some new episodes of his own - and in his endeavours to do so he manages to persuade Vogel to bring him some props from the police evidence room and some of Aubrey’s friends to help him out with filming.

Watch a trailer:

Nostalgia and milieu control

In many ways, Brigsby Bear fits in with various other “milieu control and its effects on the psyche” movies, especially Lenny Abrahamson’s last two films Frank (2014) and Room (2015), but also The Truman Show (1998) and Dogtooth (2009). At the same time, however, it does give the whole idea a somewhat different spin. The overall tone isn’t as dark as most of those films are either.

It’s more of an offbeat comedy about childhood nostalgia for even the cheesiest of fluff. Moreover, such stuff keeps getting its own fresh cult followings from new generations because “people loved it back in the day” - only this time it is shared endlessly on modern social media. Just look at how many 1980s nostalgia pages there are on Facebook nowadays.

Brigsby Bear

The show-within-the-film is one of the most enjoyable and imaginative parts here. Brigsby himself is an almost spitting image of Teddy Ruxpin, while the plots involving the defeating Sunsnatcher’s nefarious are reminiscent of the Masters of the Universe and Thundercats cartoons in the way in which the day is always saved via some fantastical deus ex machina contrivance. The effects look like they have been created on a budget of about $5. There are even well-meaning “remember to throw away your litter”-style messages at the end, just as there were in those aforementioned shows.

Gentle humour

Outside of that, this is a surprisingly gentle tale of someone made into a misfit by circumstance who finds that they can fit in surprisingly well when they do what they know best - despite the concerns of both family members and psychiatrists. Even when the film looks like it’s taking a sad turn it ultimately returns to its upbeat vibe. What sounds like a shallow approach it actually works rather well in this context.

The humour is subtly black and packed with neat little details which cleverly hint at the bizarre world which Ted and April have created for James. At the same time never overly mean-spirited, even avoiding turning these misguided fake parents into the outright villains the authorities paint them up to be. The underlying message seems to be “accept essentially harmless people the way they are, regardless of where they have come from”.

Kyle Mooney displays both fine comic timing and a bittersweet sense of humanity in the lead, keeping the character a likeable oddball without going over-the-top. However, the best two performances here are by Mark Hamill - who both plays his flawed character with a genuine sense of fatherly affection and makes good use of his voice-acting talents - and by Greg Kinnear as a police officer who ultimately possesses the same childlike heart as James does.

If you only see one film featuring Mark Hamill this month… errr… you should probably go for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. However, you should try and catch this small gem too, if you can.

Runtime: 97 mins

Dir: Dave McCary

Script: Kevin Costello, Kyle Mooney

Starring: Kyle Mooney, Claire Danes, Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear, Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Ryan Simpkins, Jane Adams

Rating: ☆☆☆☆

Where is it showing in Edinburgh and Glasgow?

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