Review: 'Brigsby Bear' might resonate with special needs families
"Brigsby Bear" is a quirky film about a grown man who believes his favorite childhood TV show is real. In other words, there’s a real-life walking and talking bear who manages to save the world in 30-minute TV episodes. Then something happens that turns the man’s life upside down. He finds out that the bear isn’t real. In fact, everything he believes about his life isn’t real.
This is not a film for kids in elementary school, but "Brigsby Bear" does have some redeeming qualities. This may be a good film for teens and adults with learning disabilities and autism to help them work through trauma. People who appreciate offbeat humor might also appreciate the film.
The story is about James (played by Kyle Mooney) who lives in an underground home with his parents, who are both college professors. They raise him to believe the air outside their home is toxic, and therefore they must wear gas masks outside. It is eerily similar to early "Star Wars" worlds. James’ father is played by Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in "Star Wars." This connection gives credibility to the way James is raised underground, away from society, almost like they are in another galaxy.
James lives a sheltered existence, rarely coming into contact with other people. He is home-schooled, and appears to have learning disabilities, perhaps high-functioning autism. He grows up obsessing over pop culture, particularly a TV show about a talking bear. It’s a cheesy, low-budget children’s show called "Brigsby Bear." The show features the “Smiling Sisters,” who are identical twins wearing rainbow shirts, and they help the bear travel to outer space in a flying saucer.
The TV show is James’ only connection with the outside world. He is obsessed with Brigsby Bear, watches every episode, decorates his bedroom walls with Brigsby posters, collects Brigsby stuffed animals, and wears Brigsby shirts.
One night, James goes outside for some fresh air. That’s when the police raid his home with flashing lights and sirens. It’s very traumatic, as James is taken away and his parents are arrested.
At the police station, James meets Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear.) The detective informs James that he was kidnapped as a newborn baby. The people who James believed to be his parents have been charged with felony kidnapping and imprisonment. The detective also informs James that "Brigsby Bear" is not real, and the show was created by his faux parents at a film studio. The detective introduces James to his real parents (played by Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins) and his sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins).
James’ new family tries to give him a new life, but he keeps thinking about Brigsby Bear not being real. His sister takes James to a college party where people are drinking beer and taking illicit drugs. James feels awkward, but is befriended by a college student named Spencer (played by Jorge Lendeborg) who is an amateur filmmaker. Spencer agrees to help James make a movie about Brigsby Bear.
James googles how to make a movie and creates elaborate storyboards. He envisions Brigsby in a battle with light sabers and barely escaping an explosion. Of course, it’s all symbolic of what’s been happening to James, and helps him bring order to his confusing circumstances.
In the meantime, James and his real parents go to family therapy with a psychiatrist (played by Claire Danes). She recommends that James be placed in a mental institution after an unusual run-in with the police. But none of this helps James make sense of his past. It doesn’t give James the skills that he needs to move on with his life. Somehow, James manages to escape from the institution and get back to making his movie. James also sets out to find the woman who played the Smiling Sisters in the TV show, and he visits his faux Dad in prison to make sense of what happened.
Overall, the movie has an absurd premise, but the idea of overcoming trauma by making a movie is something that will resonate with some viewers. Personally, I have an autistic friend who loves cartoon characters and sometimes makes movies on her cellphone in order to work through traumatic issues. One of her films, apparently a closure exercise, involved writing things down on paper and then setting them on fire. Then she put the film on Facebook for all to see. Doing this is like therapy for her.
In the same way, the Brigsby Bear film helps James recover from the trauma of what’s happened to him, wrap up unresolved issues and bring closure. By finishing Brigsby’s story, James reconnects with to his former life, and puts the missing pieces together.
Appropriateness for children
You might be wondering if this is a good film for children. As a parent, I feel like the subject matter (kidnapping, betrayal, mistrust, dishonest authority figures) is too intense for children in elementary school. There’s also a scene in which James is given illicit drugs (pills) and starts to hallucinate. The film is better suited for teenagers and adults.
The filmmakers probably never intended for the film to hit home with learning disabled teens and adults, but I think they would enjoy the film. There is a scene in which James goes to a diner and cannot read the menu and order. He doesn’t know how much money he has to spend, so he gives his pocket change to the waitress and asks her what he can get with it. I felt that was a good indication that James has learning disabilities, possibly autism.
"Brigsby Bear" is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, profanity, brief sexuality, drug use and teenage partying.