The Sweet, Complicated Process of Recovery in ‘Brigsby Bear’

For James (Kyle Mooney), the most familiar and comforting sound is the crackling static of a VHS tape rewound to the beginning of his favorite TV show, ‘Brigsby Bear Adventures’. An upbeat theme song reminiscent of 80s and 90s sitcoms plays over a colorful opening title sequence, introducing the character of Brigsby the bear and his mix of animal and human friends. By the end of each episode Brigsby and his friends find magical ways to save the galaxy and defeat the evil Sun-Stealer – a talking sun with the face of a human (think Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, but even more ominous).

In Brigsby Bear, most of what James learns about relationships, etiquette and day-to-day life comes from the randomly dispersed, educational moments throughout ‘Brigsby Bear Adventures’, some of which are oddly specific to his life, which wouldn’t be so unusual if it weren’t for his less than traditional upbringing. James lives in an underground bunker with his parents, given strict instructions not to go outside because it’s too dangerous. On the one night he decides to give in to his curiosity and venture out, he is picked up by a swarm of police officers who are on their way to arrest his parents. James is informed by the lead detective on the case that Ted (Mark Hamill) and April Mitchum (Jane Adams) are not his real parents – he was stolen as a baby and held captive ever since. They were finally able to find the bunker by tracking Ted from the studio where he constructed and filmed the entirety of Brigsby Bear Adventures.

For a film that revels in its eccentricities, Brigsby Bear is still careful when it comes to finding a tonal balance between the more bizarre, silly elements of what’s at play and the obviously serious subject matter (mainly, trauma and gaslighting). When James is introduced to his birth parents and younger sister, he doesn’t transition smoothly into his new life. After all, recovery from trauma is messy. It’s complicated and vulnerable, and scattered with brief pockets of joy when you least expect it. You may hear people use the phrase “rebuilding your life” when they talk about moving on from traumatic experiences, and there’s accuracy in that.

The only life James ever knew was the one in an underground bunker, with two parents who seemingly really cared about him. He trusted them completely because everything they taught was normalized through ‘Brigsby Bear Adventures’, a show literally made for him. Before he was aware of the horrifying reality of how he was raised, James had what he would consider a decent life. That makes it even more difficult to process what he’s been through, because in his mind it wasn’t necessarily traumatic until after the fact. There was good in it.

Kyle Mooney and Mark Hamill in ‘Brigsby Bear’

If you’ve ever been manipulated by someone you trusted, you learn that you have to reshape the way you think, down to the intricacies of how you perceive interactions and connect with people. You guard the raw, fragile parts of yourself so that no one can reach them. Sometimes, you do such a good job of guarding them that they become lost or forgotten. Weeks or months or even years go by until one day, something you see or hear initiates a spark, reigniting memories and feelings you thought were long gone.

Watching the complicated but earnest process of James coping with his trauma reminds me of a quote from the novel The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black: “We all wind up drawn to what we’re afraid of, drawn to try to find a way to make ourselves safe from a thing by crawling inside of it, by loving it, by becoming it.” James doesn’t start to feel happy in his new life until he introduces ‘Brigsby Bear Adventures’ to the new people he meets, sharing the thing that always brought him the most joy in an effort to connect. They not only embrace the ridiculous, whimsical show, but offer to help James make a Brigsby movie in order to give the show and the character a proper ending. In doing this, James is taking the thing that was created to manipulate him, and reclaiming it as his own. How the story ends is entirely up to him – he’s in control of the narrative.

That concept is one of the reasons why Brigsby Bear felt truly special the first time I watched it. Regardless of how weird or silly aspects of it may be, it’s still a film that understands that the process of recovering from the things that hurt us is not linear, nor is it universal. It takes time to adjust to what it means to move forward after experiencing things that feel like the end of the world as we know it.

Kyle Mooney in ‘Brigsby Bear’

I was also drawn to the way that the film kindly treats James for being so passionate about something that was – for all intents and purposes – an educational children’s program. It would have been easy for his love for Brigsby to be portrayed maliciously, poking fun at a grown man who wants to talk almost exclusively about a fictional bear who saves the world. But it makes sense in the context of the story for James to retreat into what felt like the best aspect of his childhood, even if it was used to warp his view of the world.

I know of so many adults, myself included, who find comfort in revisiting the stories and characters that were a crucial part of our childhoods. It’s hard not to notice that people like Mister Rogers and Bob Ross are perhaps just as popular now as they were when their shows (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and The Joy of Painting, respectively) were originally airing, and Disney is certainly taking advantage of the nostalgia factor of releasing remakes of their beloved animated films. If I’m having a hard week, sometimes it’s incredibly nice to watch old episodes of The Muppet Show or see David Bowie perform “Magic Dance” with fantastical creatures in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. I’m also someone who cried no less than five times while watching Christopher Robin (2018).

Although I certainly haven’t experienced anything similar to what James went through in Brigsby Bear, I know a little bit about what it’s like to try to have a “normal” adulthood after you’ve gone through some hard things as a kid/teenager. It simultaneously feels like a second chance at trying to be happy, but also like a complicated task that you can’t quite figure out all the steps to completing. There’s also the process of recognizing who you are as a person outside of those negative experiences, and determining what aspects of your personality and how you interact with the world are a result of said experiences. We get a tiny glimpse, towards the end of the film, of James starting to realize that eventually he’s going to have a life that isn’t dictated by Brigsby. But the spirit of what Brigsby represented to him is always going to be there to help. That pure, curious, childlike wonder.