The man-child James in the offbeat comedy Brigsby Bear is stuck in a state of perpetual adolescence. A bespectacled naif with two-day stubble and the ringlets of an angel, he’s an eccentric young man with an arrested emotional development this side of Pee-wee Herman. Imprisoned his entire life in an underground fallout shelter by a well-meaning but nutcase couple posing as his parents, James has a single point of reference in his world: a bizarre children’s educational program starring a giant blond bear named Brigsby — a plushy adventure hero who has taught him everything from basic multiplication tables to valuable life lessons on hundreds of worn-out VHS cassette tapes watched over and over during his extended childhood. (Picture those animatronic singing hillbillies jamboreeing at Disneyland or ShowBiz Pizza Place and you’ve got an idea of Brigsby – except he’s blander than the average bear.)
Cheaply produced and super cheesy, the makeshift show’s episodes have a so-bad-it’s-good quality about them; they’re earnest and yet terrible, like public access channel programming at its most ambitious. (Where are the big ferns?) When James involuntarily surfaces above ground, he can’t help but bring Brigsby with him, doggedly intent upon introducing his ursine mentor to a broader audience in a low-low-low-budget movie that finishes up where the one-of-a-kind series made especially for him left off. Wearing the hats of actor, director, writer and producer, James is Orson Welles and Ed Wood rolled into one, a visionary making his opus straight from the heart.
Brigsby Bear begins strangely, almost uncomfortably, as you’re introduced to James’ insular existence and his complete social awkwardness. (SNL cast member Kyle Mooney is perfectly guileless in the role. And he rocks the character’s JCPenney attire.) But at some point, the movie goes soft, turning less grizzly and more teddy as James’ obsession with Brigsby takes on therapeutic value and helps him acclimate to his new environment, facilitating relationships with newfound friends and the members of his real family. (The supporting cast is fine but tends to fade into the background, with the exception of Greg Kinnear’s sympathetic cop assigned to James’ kidnapping case.) Viewers hoping for a foray into Donnie Darko territory will be disappointed by this shift in tone. But those who like things sentimental and sweet — and there’s nothing wrong with that — will find comfort in the notion of leaving the past behind to allow the future to go forward. No doubt, it’s a message fit for an episode of Brigsby’s little show.