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Sundance Hit ‘Brigsby Bear’ Opens

Film is something of a San Diego success story

Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

James (Kyle Mooney) doesn't realize that the man (Mark Hamill) that he knows as his dad had actually abducted him as an infant 25 years ago in "Brigsby Bear."

"Brigsby Bear" is something of a San Diego success story. Its creators, director Dave McCary and writer-star Kyle Mooney, went from San Diego to "Saturday Night Live," then earlier this year their film became a sleeper hit at Sundance.

What if you grew up in isolation with a TV show called "Brigsby Bear Adventures" as your only window to an outside world. Now also consider the show was created solely for you by a couple that had abducted you as a baby.

That is the central conceit of Dave McCary’s new film starring Kyle Mooney.

The film begins by introducing us to James (Kyle Mooney) and his isolated world living in a kind of bunker with his "parents" (played by Mark Hamill and Jane Adams). No one is allowed outside without a gas mask, and each day ends with an episode of "Brigsby Bear Adventures" on VHS.

But one night cops arrive to take James away and return him to his parents who have been searching for him for 25 years. When James is reunited with his biological parents (Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins) and sister (Ryan Simpkins) the transition is difficult. Not only does he have to adjust to people who are essentially total strangers as family but he has to adjust to a world where "Brisgby Bear Adventures" does not exist.

McCary and Mooney create a very sweet environment that seems only remotely related to the real world we live in. In this world, child abductors are just misguided, teenagers are warmly embracing of someone who is weird and quirky, cops are good-hearted guys who willingly turn a blind eye to everything from stealing evidence to homemade bombs. There is not a single person who is not nice and understanding.

Even James displays casual acceptance of what his abductors did: "My parents stole me when I was a baby, but I still think they are pretty cool."

When James tries to process the rapid changes in his life he considers making a final episode of "Brigsby Bear Adventures" to bring some sort of closure to the story.

He suggests that the storyline might allow that at some point his alter ego of Brigsby "gets his bear parents out of space jail because if you think about what they did it wasn’t even that bad."

As a parent, I can’t think of anything worse than having your infant stolen and not knowing for decades whether or not he was safe. But if you can get past that, "Brigsby" and James do display refreshing creativity, originality, and charm. It also helps if the abducting parents are played by immensely likable actors such as Mark Hamill and Jane Adams. In fact, it is both key and clever that McCary chose Hamill as the kidnapper who makes a TV show for an audience of one, his abducted son.

Hamill's character of Ted Mitchum creates a show that looks like some perversion of a Sid and Marty Krofft show from the 70s or 80s. The show is completely retro from its clothes to cheesy effects and has the added appeal of being on VHS. All that is designed to make not just the show but the abductor who created it appealing to an audience that now looks nostalgically back on the 80s, VHS and dorky shows and fashion.

In James, they give us a character who is a nerd because that is how his fake parents raised him. They raised him to be the number one fan of "Brigsby Bear Adventures" and even created a fake fan community for him to interact with on the fake internet they created for him. So his desire to make his own "Brigsby Bear Adventure" is the ultimate expression of fandom. And that makes it okay for him to go back and get Ted to voice the character of Brigsby because after all, who doesn't want to hear Mark Hamill (the voice of the Joker and the person to embody Luke Skywalker) voice a talking bear.

The film gives an occasional moment to the biological parents to voice their side of the story. The father cannot understand why his son wants all the props from the "Brigsby" show because as he suggests, "All this stuff are not collectibles, they are tools used by very sick people to imprison my son." Then later when the family is in a group therapy session the dad makes what is practically the only expression of anger in the film when he states, "These monsters stole you from us."

The fact that McCary and Mooney decide to turn child abduction into a sweet, misguided adventure is decidedly an original take, and within the context of the world they create, it is something that you can sort of accept. But the film might be stronger if they could have found a way to deal with the true darkness of that scenario.

But that is not what they were interested in. They were interested in making a film that shows the power of fandom to inspire creativity and to make a film that basically celebrates extreme nerdiness and geekdom.

"Brigsby Bear" (rated PG-13 for thematic elements, brief sexuality, drug material and teen partying) is refreshing in its approach and storyline. It displays an originality that definitely makes it stand out and the extent to which you can embrace it will be determined by how willing you are to accept the sweet naivete of the characters, their world, and by extension, the filmmakers.

"Brigsby Bear" is something of a San Diego success story. Its creators, director Dave McCary and writer-star Kyle Mooney, went from San Diego to "Saturday Night Live," then earlier this year, their film became a sleeper hit at Sundance.

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