Opening on glitchy VHS recordings of an old lo-fi, educational children’s show about a bear fighting evil across the galaxy, Dave McCary’s Brigsby Bear is a paean to the charms of being out of fashion. The show only existed for one person, James Pope (Kyle Mooney), and was made by a cultish couple, Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams), as a means to keep him prisoner in their desert compound since, unbeknownst to James, kidnapping him as an infant. Now 25, he’s a Brigsby fanatic with little else on his mind.
Blissfully unaware of his predicament, James is forced into the real world when police finally arrive on Ted and April’s doorstep. At this point, Brigsby Bear plants its feet in an earnestly quirky world of jaded adults who’ve given up on their dreams. The strangers in James’s new life don’t bully him for his social naïveté; everyone outside of his birth parents and therapist really love seeing the tapes of his favorite TV bear, and in spite of their crappy image quality and lessons on masturbation. When James learns that Brigsby isn’t a real TV show, he enlists a new friend, teenaged Trekkie Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), and the sympathetic Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) to make a big-screen finale to the series and bring some closure to his ordeal.
Brigsby Bear is something of a narrative retread of darkly warm-hearted indies like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and It’s Kind of a Funny Story, where adolescents use art to navigate their personal traumas. But this film, remarkably generic for a story that presents itself as offbeat, stays altogether cheerier than its precursors by studiously avoiding any deep psychologizing of James or his captors. As an ode to fandom (at one point, Mark Hamill devilishly utters Darth Vader’s infamous “I have you now!” line), friendship, and the therapeutic power of art, it feels most comfortable when valorizing James’s giddy attempts, played by a childlike Mooney with a surprisingly subtle desperation, to bring his lifetime obsession to the big screen.
Brigsby Bear revels in the little details unique to its universe. Anywhere he can get away with it, McCary sneaks in a vestige of the quasi-vintage that James grew up around: big tape recorders, ringer tees, Brigsby paraphernalia. The film is overflowing with all this stuff, just waiting for James to lovingly fondle them. All these tchotchkes nuzzle into sets that feel overwhelmingly Etsy-inspired. For better or worse, a sincere arts-and-crafty love of spaces suffuses every bit of Brigsby Bear. Even Ted and April’s desert compound and its soothing geodesic dome exude a kind of homemade coziness.
Eventually, though, the underbaked story of James’s quest to finish his film takes center stage, at which point Brigsby Bear starts recycling its jokes and speeding toward tying all of its various subplots together. The result is a loose assortment of largely bland and poorly motivated scenes that lean on James’s youthful energy to prop them up. Still, Brigsby Bear has such a goofy sense of humor and affection for its premise that its uneven narrative is sometimes only as frustrating as a little static on an old VHS.