With Brigsby Bear and Ingrid Goes West, we’re beginning to see cinema treat millineal internet culture not just an easy joke, but as a legitimate object of artistic study. Ingrid looks at Instagram the same way Joan Didion and the New Journalists looked at 1970s pop culture, but Brigsby Bear takes a more surreal approach to internet fandom for nostalgic properties.
The nostalgic property here is the titular Brigsby, the main character in a children’s show that James (Kyle Mooney) loves well into adulthood. While his video reviews, discussion board activity, and merchandise collection may suggest an emotionally stunted man-child, James finds real human connection in the knowledge that others watch these stories with him, experiencing the same emotions.
The movie never invites us to a laugh at such a premise, and instead insists we take it seriously because…
… James lives in a fake bomb shelter, certain that the show is the only thing keeping other survivors connected. But the episodes are all part of a bizarre science experiment by James’s parents (an excellent Mark Hamill and wasted Jane Adams) who, in fact, kidnapped him as a child. Upon being freed by the FBI and returned to his birth parents, James has to make sense of a world that, he’s troubled to learn, knows nothing of Brigsby Bear. Entering reality reveals his one connection to humanity to be nothing more than an exercise in egoism.
Again, another movie might use this premise as a shot against internet nostalgia culture (and, after the #NotMyLuke nonsense following Hamill’s better known 2017 movie, the shot may be deserved). But Brigsby Bear takes seriously James’s attempts to assert control over his life by filming a movie about his favorite character.
Although he begins the story as Brigsby’s biggest and only fan, James soon recruits a whole community to help him, from a young aspiring filmmaker (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) to a cop rediscovering his love of theater (Greg Kinnear) to hundreds of new Brigsby devotees, who find episodes James’s friends upload online.
The movie manages to keep an encouraging tone when dealing with such potentially silly material, thanks in large part to Mooney’s outstanding performance and director Dave McCary’s refusal to stray into easy irony. Every time James says something nerdy or out of context — like the catchphrase he learns but doesn’t understand, “Dope as shit” — Mooney buries the laugh line by looking down or to the side. Instead of mugging for the camera, he brings a shyness to the character that emphasizes his humanity.
This humanitarian streak is most pronounced when you contrast Brigsby Bear to another 2017 movie about movie-making, The Disaster Artist. Where Franco and company never miss a chance to underscore Tommy Wiseau’s weirdness and find only an ironic community in the final film product, Brigsby Bear treats James like a person who longs to be with other people. The creation and showing of the film feels less like an odd joke and more like a celebration of people who find meaning sharing the same strange thing.