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Film review: 'Brigsby Bear'

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Everyone has certain pop culture touchstones. There are pieces of ephemera from our formative years that stuck with us as we got older, molding and shaping our overall worldview. For James (played by Kyle Mooney), that touchstone is "Brigsby Bear," an educational children's fantasy TV show from the 1980's. The show followed Brigsby, a magical anthropomorphic bear who fought to keep the world safe from an evil wizard known as Sun Snatcher through an elaborate mythology that was developed over the course of more than 700 episodes.

James is now a young man, but Brigsby has been with him since childhood, providing a source of companionship while growing up with his parents, Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams), in the isolated underground bunker where they made their home.

Then one day, the FBI shows up and takes James away. It turns out that Ted and April aren't his parents at all; they stole him when he was just a baby and raised him as their own. Even worse, it turns out "Brigsby Bear" wasn't a real program. The show was created especially for him by his kidnappers, and they used it to slip messages of obedience and docility -- "Curiosity is an unnatural emotion!" -- in between teaching him multiplication and reminding him to do his chores.

The sweetly absurd comedy "Brigsby Bear" deals with what happens after James has the rug pulled out from under him and he's reunited with his real parents (Michaela Watkins and Matt Walsh). He finds himself tossed into a world much more complicated than anything he's ever known. A psychiatrist (Claire Danes) attempts to aid in James's transition, and he finds a sympathetic ear in a helpful detective (Greg Kinnear) handling his case.

Through it all, James's fascination with "Brigsby Bear" remains, until he decides to direct a "Brigsby" film of his own and provide some closure to the beloved character's adventures. Enlisting the help of his initially skeptical teenage sister, Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins), and her friends, including a budding animator named Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), James turns a source of trauma into something positive. As he introduces his new friends to the wonders of "Brigsby," he ends up making them love it as much as he does.

A little bit "Teddy Ruxpin" and a little bit "Room," "Brigsby Bear" is less interested in the darker aspects of its story, aiming instead for a tone of gentle optimism. Examining fan culture in its various forms, the film demonstrates the ways pop culture can be either a source of alienation, or a way to connect us to the world.

At some point, Spencer ends up putting some clips of the show online (James has to steal his old VHS tapes back from the police station evidence locker in order to get them). And as people from all over stumble across the clips, "Brigsby" ends up finding a real-life audience for the first time.

What begins as something purely for himself, becomes James' method to re-renter society. "Brigsby Bear" understands how we relate to our entertainment obsessions: when we find something we love so much that we end up seeking out other people who love it just as much as we do. And when we find them, we end up creating a place where we instantly belong.

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