The sheer abundance of sequels and recycled ideas in movie theaters this summer was exhausting to say the least and the entire industry has suffered from a severe case of unoriginality bloat as a result. There has been some hefty blowback for Hollywood and according to an article in Variety, “Since the beginning of August, the top four theater chains in North America lost $1.3 billion in value.” That’s billion, with a B. While big studios (gambling with budgets in the tens/hundreds-of-millions range) are taking it on the chin when they produce a flop, the door is open for Indie films to captivate audiences bored with redundancy.
Brigsby Bear is the perfect antidote to the late summer stagnation. Admittedly, it was more than a bit difficult to discern just exactly what this film was about from the trailer, but my instincts pointed me in the right direction. A young man who’d been held captive and isolated from the world is abruptly “rescued” and embarks on a journey to connect with the real world and live out the fantasy from his favorite childhood TV show. There is one catch… nobody has ever seen the show but James. While it may be difficult to grasp the concept of this film from afar, it feels strangely at home once you break that barrier.
Kyle Mooney stars as James and co-wrote the screenplay alongside Kevin Costello. Without knowing Mooney had co-written the script beforehand, it’s abundantly clear early in the film that the project was something very close to him. The passion and intimate details of the character exude a powerful charisma from the unlikely hero. He is an unassuming protagonist without the trappings of a social filter which makes James a more vulnerable and accessible character. The undisguised, stripped down approach to personal narrative transcends genre boundaries and provides a valuable lesson in storytelling. There’s so much heart and authenticity in the script, it jumps off the screen and sits beside you. A character than connects with audiences in a meaningful way is rare these days, that’s not the case with this film and a testament to the brilliance in the character writing. They are so well written and developed, each one has an arc complete with actual development and ultimately fruition.
Outside of Mooney there aren’t really another captivating performance on the same level, but the supporting cast is very strong all around. Greg Kinnear shines as Detective Vogel, functioning as a social worker of sorts who is assigned to James’s case. His rigid stoicism is quickly toppled by James’s childlike honesty and enthusiasm, forcing him to confront his own job dissatisfaction and the bureaucratic red tape that comes along with it. Mark Hamill (yes, Luke Skywalker) carved some time out of his hectic schedule to play one of James’ captors and the creator of Brigsby Bear. In limited screen time, his enthusiasm for the project and the character shine through effortlessly and it becomes obvious why he attached his name (and his brand) to the film. Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins are both strong comedic actors in their own right which made them a good fit to play James’s birth parents. The intricacies of the script required an adept touch when navigating the space between comedy and drama, which they did handily right there in middle, allowing for genuine emotion to emerge naturally.
James’s core group of friends closed the loop and brought the whole thing full circle. Without having friends to share in his journey, it becomes far less accessible. Ryan Simpkins is strong in short bursts playing his moody teenage sister who is forced to adjust when James returns home. With some reservations, her barriers begin to come down and their relationship as siblings begins to develop organically. Through that James is able to make more meaningful connections, namely with Jorge Lendeborg Jr. and Alexa Demie who play Spencer and Meredith respectively. Traditionally the cool kids don’t befriend the nerdy outcast, so it was a welcome change to the dynamic which brought some extra layers of depth and modernity.
This film was remarkably well made from the top down. Director David McCary showed a lot of promise directing his first full length feature, capturing the fanciful imagination of childhood struggling in stark contrast against the often painful but rewarding journey into adulthood. The film is allegorical in that way, serving as a very unique coming of age story under outrageous circumstances. It also serves as a bit of a tongue in cheek parallel to the process of making an independent film with friends. Christian Sprenger was an excellent choice to do the cinematography. Although he’s shot mostly television and short films, he has a crisp cinematic eye. It was refreshing to see someone who understands, values and utilizes effective closeups. In particular, one scene early on in the back seat of a police cruiser is a great summation of Sprenger’s utility and commitment. He also showcased beautiful, wide sweeping landscape shots to great effect in contrasting the two different realities of James’s life. For small budget films, one of the toughest hurdles is not looking cheap and Sprenger brought a wonderfully polished professionalism to the screen. David Wingo made some wonderful original music as well. It is spot-on tonally and filled with a rich sense of wonder and joy. Not every film needs to have a good score, but it never hurts and underestimating the importance of strong score is another pitfall which this movie managed to avoid.
This is certainly one of the best films of the year so far and maybe even my favorite. Brigsby Bear checked all the boxes in terms of quality filmmaking and brought a very quirky, original idea to life. Completely awkward and totally fun. It’s disarmingly and unexpectedly charming. I didn’t expect to have such a strong emotional response, but this film was able to make me laugh and even cry a little because of context. At this point in the year it deserves to be under consideration for Best Picture (although I don’t expect it to win). Things may change with targeted releases coming towards the end of the year, but for now it should be in the conversation. However, the players involved should get much due recognition and possibly even take home some prestigious hardware during awards season.
Recommendation: Go see this movie. It’s been out a few weeks and it was difficult to find, but absolutely worth it. Both adult and family friendly, you could do much worse when it comes to spending your money at the movies. Word of mouth should help this movie stay afloat, hopefully similar to the trajectory of The Big Sick.