This decade's crop of film comedies about arrested development offers plenty of fodder for a think piece on helicopter parenting, but Brigsby Bear takes both concepts to new levels. In this wispy indie comedy, Kyle Mooney of "Saturday Night Live" is so convincing as a twentysomething man-child, his performance so deadpan, vulnerable and free of mugging, that it's tough to laugh at him. We may feel like we're mocking a real kid when we ought to be applauding his precocious imagination. And yet ... this isn't a kid.
That discomfort is what lifts Brigsby Bear — directed by Dave McCary and written by Mooney and Kevin Costello — above the usual crop of quirky fest favorites. By turns funny, uplifting and a little queasy-making, the film sustains that tension for a while — before, ultimately, taking a too-predictable route.
The movie opens with Mooney's character, James, living in what appears to be a post-global-disaster bunker. His world revolves around the weekly delivery of a new tape of "Brigsby Bear Adventures," a low-tech, '80s-style kids' show that has matured along with him. (Recent episodes handle topics like advanced math and masturbation.) James' social circle consists of his protective parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) and other "Brigsby" fans with whom he connects solely online; obsessive dissection of the show is his version of a religion.
If this whole scenario seems fishy, it should. Early in the film (stop reading now if you don't want to be spoiled for a big first-act twist), cops burst into the bunker and liberate James from his "parents" — who, it turns out, actually abducted him as a baby. His entire world is a bizarre fabrication, and his real parents await him with open arms, ready to introduce him to life in the 21st century.
Fish-out-of-water — or boy-out-of-bunker — comedy is nothing new; viewers will inevitably be reminded of Blast From the Past and "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt." Brigsby does milk James' naïveté for a few jokes, like his dorky repetition of newly learned slang ("dope as shit"). But its real focus is elsewhere: on his refusal to forget about the cheesy homemade TV show he loves. Unable to dismiss "Brigsby" as a product of twisted minds, James embarks on a quest to give it a proper ending.
The film's deeper joke, in other words, is that James is more like his non-bunker-raised peers than he is unlike them. He quickly connects with a teen (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) who's well versed in sci-fi fandom. Recognizing "Brigsby" as a potential cult item, the kid gives James the tech tools he needs to make his vision a reality.
Brigsby is genuinely sweet, affirming the capacity of imagination to triumph over trauma. Yet it misses opportunities to explore the tensions between "Brigsby"'s creepy origin and its empowering denouement; and between James' single-minded, unironic fandom and his new friends' more savvy pop-culture consciousness.
Toward the end, this lack of conflict makes the film start to drag. James has a therapist (Claire Danes) who argues that revisiting "Brigsby" is damaging to his psyche, but she's a straw woman, too easily overcome.
Celebrating the power of storytelling is all well and good, but the fact remains that James' favorite story was used to keep him a prisoner. How many of us are voluntary prisoners, on some level, of narratives that help us avoid real life? A darker, tougher comedy might have shown that, if we hesitate to laugh at James, it's not because he's damaged but because he's us.