In a post-apocalyptic world, 25-year-old James lives with his dad and mom in an underground bunker. Though his existence is an odd one, he seemingly does not lack for love or support.
"We have dreams and imaginations to help us sustain," James' father tells him. "And no one can take that away from you, ever."
James fills most of his time obsessing over Brigsby Bear, a character in a low-budget, sci-fi, educational TV show. The program is the only one James is allowed to watch and, seemingly, the only one in existence. Bear is part teacher, part space traveler, part real-life companion, not just to James but to the "friends" James makes in his Brigsby-themed internet chat rooms. With apologies to Aldous Huxley, it's a Bear New World.
"Brigsby is the greatest hero," James explains, "and when everything is against him, he never gives up, even if it's hopeless. He's my whole life."
Trouble is, none of this is real, as James finds out in the film's first act. The rest of the movie is not just a journey of discovery for him and for us, but a study in perceived reality. It's a reminder that we can make our own existence and assign it meaning. Admittedly, the film's pacing isn't perfect and its plot stretches believability to the breaking point, but only when judged as a conventional drama, which it isn't. Instead, it's part fantasy, part dramedy, part coming-of-age tale and part pop-culture commentary, with elements of Room, The Truman Show, and even Being There. With this strange combination of influences, Brigsby Bear builds a world — and a character — that is strangely relatable, despite its surreal silliness.
As James, Kyle Mooney (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Kevin Costello) delivers an emotionally resonant performance. His transition from fake to real world seems a tad too easy, even too graceful, in the vein of Chauncey Gardner, but it somehow fits the movie's sensibility. As James' "fake" parents, Mark Hamill and Jane Adams are effective, with the former being a wise, even meta-theatrical choice, considering the Star Wars-level devotion lavished upon Brigsby. While some of the supporting performances could be sharper, Greg Kinnear (as a police officer who helps James adapt to his new world) and Claire Danes (as a therapist) are effective. My favorite among the supporting cast, though, is Kate Lyn Sheil (House of Cards, Buster's Mal Heart), who plays — well, you'll just have to wait and see.
Structurally, Bear gets a bit mangy at the midpoint but quickly finds its direction again and builds to a satisfyingly original, even slightly profound conclusion. Nothing about director Dave McCary's film seems shopworn or constructed on a Hollywood assembly line. Bear is instead crafted with care and stuffed with love.