It’s hard to say what, exactly, is the matter with James, the protagonist of Brigsby Bear. Played by Kyle Mooney—best known as a cast member of Saturday Night Live, where his contributions largely consist of short films so odd they’re often relegated to the “Cut for Time” section of the show’s YouTube channel—James is always slightly askew of whatever room he’s in. Sometimes it seems like he might be on the autism spectrum, as when a new friend responds to something James has said with, “That’s insane! I love it!” and he eagerly replies, “That’s insane I love it, yeah!” Sometimes it seems like a more severe emotional instability, as when he hunches over his laptop and pecks, “How do I make good explosions? Thank you.” into Google, then tells his mother the fertilizer he’s buying is part of a new interest in gardening.
Of course, whatever might be the matter with James most likely stems from the fact that he was abducted as a newborn by a kind but unstable couple (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) who raised him in a bunker, and taught him life skills via a children’s TV show, Brigsby Bear Adventures—all 736 episodes of which were, unbeknownst to James, produced solely for him. If you lived a quarter century under that kind of isolation and obsession, you’d probably behave strangely when you entered conventional society, too.
When he emerges into a world that he can only describe, to reporters frantic for his story, as “a different reality than I thought,” James has one singular obsession: he needs more Brigsby Bear. Nothing matters except his relationship with the magical images on his screen.
When his therapist (Claire Danes) and his parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins) try to help James find something else to focus on, he roars, “I don’t care about that stuff!” Teeth gritted, tears in his eyes, he insists, “I already know that Brigsby is the greatest hero!
“And when everything is against him, he never gives up!”
Mooney—who co-wrote Brigsby Bear with childhood friend Kevin Costello, before handing it to another childhood friend, Dave McCary, to direct—has been playing characters like James for years. While his work on Saturday Night Live demonstrates chameleonic skill as a performer, the classic Kyle character is distinguished by a mix of naïveté, discomfort, and uniquely garbled mumbling.
In one, long-running routine, Kyle, looking like an oversized child with ill-fitting polo shirts and unstyled hair, conducts man-on-the-street interviews with nonplussed strangers outside events like a Miami Heat game he attended in 2012.
“When did they even know—when did they even know they were gonna slam through this one?” he asks one man, artlessly interrupting a conversation. “When did they even know that they were gonna,” he presses on as the man tries to ignore him, “when did they even know that they were gonna dunk that fast and that hard?…But when did they—when did they know—when did they know that they were gonna slam through it that fast?”
As with similar works by comedians from Andy Kaufman to Nathan Fielder, the humor in these interviews comes from normal people fumbling through abnormal encounters. But there’s something raw at the heart of the Kyle persona, a fervent but futile attempt to connect with the world. When his inquiry about fast and hard slamming-through is shut down, we cut to Kyle trying to enlist interviewees, tentatively touching the backs of passersby, his eyes lighting up each time he sees someone new, his shoulders collapsing each time they evade him, until he’s alone in a crowd, lost and confused.
Another YouTube video, uploaded in 2011 and titled simply sad, feels like a spiritual cousin to Brigsby Bear, telling a brief and bizarre story (in a Washington Post interview, Mooney referred to his YouTube videos as “anti-comedy”) of media obsession, wild mood swings, and the struggle to manage an unstable imp.
There’s a lot that I recognize in this video. Dave (implied to be McCary, director of Brigsby Bear) enters a shared house that’s more like a college dorm—it looks just like the houses I’ve spent so much time in while visiting young artist friends in Los Angeles. Kyle is on the couch, weeping into his hands, unwilling to tell Dave what’s wrong. Finally, through a jaw that seems just a bit too relaxed, Kyle slurs that he forgot to record his favorite show—“It’s MTV The Show, and it’s funny ‘nd great.” Dave turns on the TV to demonstrate that MTV is a channel, not a show, and Kyle explodes with joy—“Endvee the show! It IS on!” Dave points to the logo in the corner of the screen, hoping to help Kyle understand that this is a channel featuring MANY shows, and Kyle becomes pushy—“It’s par’the MTV show, it’s one’a the bits, Dave.” Finally, Kyle loses it—his speech patterns are always hard to transcribe, but now his ranting becomes essentially unintelligible. He shouts something like, “Ee-zhee do wanna dya! Eeza reyular CHANNEL! Nooo, izza emmvee the SHOWWW. And dayo sinktuff taKASSayaren TOO.” It’s hilarious. And it’s a little unsettling.
And then, something happens that I recognize so acutely my stomach turns.
Dave gets Kyle to calm down, and he says, “I think it’s really important that we bring you to the hospital…Are you open to this idea?” Kyle stands still, head cocked, eyelids heavy with a bemusement that I remember so vividly. “I want to go to the hospital,” Dave pushes on, “and maybe have you looked at, and maybe we’ll try to figure out what’s happening in your brain at moments like this where you kinda go crazy.” Kyle’s eerily calm body language conveys an indulgence, one I expressed so often in 2011, a sympathetic tolerance for a friend who doesn’t understand how much he’s overreacting. “You’re not like this all the time,” Dave pleads.
Finally, Kyle throws up his hands in frustration and, with speech that’s just slightly pressured, asks his friend, “What do you want me to do? What would make you happy?”
After another few seconds, Kyle and Dave crack up, and the game is over, the video ends. But when it was me, when my friends and family begged me to get my erratic behavior under control, when I shouted back, “What do you want me to do?” we didn’t have that escape hatch. There was no laughter, no cut to black.
Though it was produced by comedy group (and SNL alumni) The Lonely Island, whose feature films, Hot Rod and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, are full-throttle, madcap comedies, the film I thought of most frequently during Brigsby Bear was Punch-Drunk Love. Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 masterpiece is built around an experiment: what if a typical Adam Sandler character, infantile and barely in control of a pathological rage, were transposed from his usual cartoonish environment to the real world, and treated with ruthless emotional authenticity?
Much of Mooney’s work already explores how a volatile man-child would interact with the real world, so Brigsby Bear takes a different tack. As Anderson did, Mooney and his collaborators drop a typical Kyle character into a world of painful realities, but the question driving the film is: what if such a character were the product of circumstances that forced the world to take him seriously?
So rather than the brush-off of a Miami Heat fan, James is met everywhere by concern and compassion. When Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) greets James in an interrogation room after his liberation, he’s heartbroken by James’ plaintive, “So am I a prisoner now?” And later, after his interest in making good explosions brings him back to the interrogation room, the deputy who questions him (Beck Bennett, another longtime Mooney collaborator and SNL costar), responds to James’ contrite, “I’m sorry to you, and I’m very sorry to America,” with a tough but compassionate, “They really did a number on you, didn’t they?”
It would be easy to build a typical Lonely Island film out of a naïf exploring the world—the 1999 Brendan Fraser vehicle Blast from the Past did something very much like that—but the Brigsby Bear team reached for something deeper. In an interview with The Verge, McCary spoke of consciously avoiding the approach of “just riffing scene by scene on, ‘Okay, you’ve never seen a tree!’ We all just felt like, the more we reach for goofs and silly stuff, the more it’ll detract from people being engaged with James’ emotional story.”
And for all its whimsy, the core of the film is one of simmering hurt, the story of someone forced, at the gentle but firm insistence of people who can’t understand him, to try and move beyond a lifelong trauma that he can only barely recognize as such.
Through it all, Brigsby Bear is a story about movies, about the power of experiencing them, and the power of creating them. On James’ first day home, his father takes him to the movies. The lobby they walk through is shot with all the rapture of a cathedral; as he settles in the dark, back in the warm glow of a fabricated reality, this new reality finally makes sense. He crams popcorn into his mouth as he laughs with joy, both at the onscreen antics, and at the unexpected communal bliss of a movie theater.
When he learns that movies are made by normal people (rather than the semi-magical appearance of Brigsby Bear tapes that he grew up with), he eagerly asks, “Can anyone do it?” It seems unfathomable that normal people create these transformative dreams. Back at home, he clears his last Google search (“How to learn things from my new computer?”) and types in, “How to make a movie show?”
And then the frenzy hits. He leans close, mouth falling open, eyes widening. Is this transcendent power really within his grasp? He starts poring through filmmaking manuals, and sketching primitive storyboards that he’s soon turned into wallpaper for his bedroom. Without the benefit of training, he coasts on the intoxication of realizing he can participate in this storytelling form he’s spent his life obsessing over. He’s going to finish telling the story of Brigsby Bear, share with the world this passion that’s entwined with his soul, and finally connect with a reality from which he’s become completely alien.
My heart pounds every time I watch this sequence. I remember that excitement. I remember that frenzy. But my heart doesn’t pound with joy. It pounds because even seven years later, I haven’t yet gotten beyond the trauma, and I probably never will.
I was about to turn 25 when I had my nervous breakdown. My psychiatrist doesn’t like it when I say that—it’s not a clinical term—but it feels right.
I had spent the three years since graduating college in virtual isolation. Living in an apartment with a roommate who was often at work before I woke up and home after I went to sleep, I did freelance copywriting from my bedroom, and filled the loneliness with movies. I had a girlfriend, but she was still at college 150 miles away. I saw friends from time to time. But mostly it was movies that distracted from the low-humming dissatisfaction with my life that I could hardly recognize, much less find a way to silence.
In the spring of 2011, I decided to write a screenplay. It was meant to be an experiment, but the experience was galvanizing. I felt like a door had exploded, and years of pent-up passion and energy could finally pour forth as I giddily rode the wave. I wrote for days, only eating and sleeping enough to survive. And when I looked outside and saw the leaves on the trees pulsing with an over-bright intensity that seemed more like glowing, it seemed perfectly natural. I’d unlocked the full potential inside me, so of course I’d gained new powers of perception.
Every move from there, I made on impulse. I barely considered any idea that struck me, because an idea this good didn’t require consideration. I barely considered my decision to move across the country to Los Angeles and make this movie I’d written. I barely considered my decision to post a Craigslist ad seeking collaborators in LA. I barely considered the grandiose proclamations I scrawled across the ad, promises that the reader was invited to the ground floor of something extraordinary, something revolutionary—I knew unequivocally I was capable of changing the way films were made, though I couldn’t possibly have articulated how. And when I was instantly deluged with letters from other hungry young artists, I barely considered whether this was all the validation I needed.
Only then did I tell my family, and my girlfriend, that I was going to go change the world. If they didn’t believe it, that didn’t matter, because dozens of people did believe in me—they were counting on me, as a matter of fact, and so was mankind. I felt liberated by the same discovery that stirs James—I could do this, create beautiful art with nobody’s permission but my own—and in the fresh thrall of that discovery, I confused it with something bigger. It felt like a divine calling, and so it could have been nothing less.
If I was suddenly crying a lot, with great force and little provocation, and if I was suddenly prone to fits of rage so intense I became unrecognizable, well, that was perfectly natural too. Something epoch-shifting had begun, and anyone who wasn’t on the train when it left the station was someone I was more than happy to leave behind.
There are two scenes in Brigsby Bear that hit me with a battering-ram force of recognition.
In one, James visits Detective Vogel to ask for his support in making a Brigsby Bear movie, something that’s quickly gone from an idea to an uncompromising obsession. “I feel like I wasn’t clear earlier about what I’m trying to do here,” James says, a line I recited endlessly as my loved ones asked me to slow down, eat something, and sleep. I just hadn’t been clear enough. Let me start again, and this time you’ll understand why I need to be moving this fast.
James sits down next to Vogel, leans in, and starts pitching him on this pioneering idea he’s dreamed up. “Try to imagine a hero,” he says, a gleam in his eye. “But he has to go against a guy on the bad side. So that’s why he decides he’s gonna go on an adventure. Plus, it’s not on a TV, it’s on a screen so big you’re gonna feel like you’re in another world!”
“Right,” Vogel says, “no, I know what a movie is.”
Clearly, he just doesn’t understand.
And neither did one young actor unfortunate enough to answer my ad. When I got him on the phone, I shouted about my vision—of a group of passionate collaborators creating beautiful art in an ambiguously groundbreaking way—before he interrupted to say, “What you’re describing is pretty common out here.”
My ideas were too ahead of their time for him. And like they say in that Godard movie, “if anyone understands me, then I wasn’t clear.” When that young actor told me to stop calling him, that was his loss; anyone who wasn’t on my wavelength didn’t deserve to help me change the world anyway.
Later, after James has pulled together the collaborators to secretly start his movie, then blown his cover when a homemade explosion arouses the attention of the police (“Practical effects are a dying art form!” he insists as he and his enraged cinematographer frantically stamp out the flames), his parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins) tell him, in no uncertain terms, he has to move on.
Instead, he steals their car and drives into the desert to find the only civilian actress who appeared in Brigsby Bear Adventures. It turns out she’s a diner waitress named Whitney (Kate Lyn Sheil), and she had no idea what she was participating in for all those years. She tearfully apologizes to James, but he won’t accept it. He’s here to ask for her help in finishing his movie, to share a connection with one of the few people who understands his passion. He needs it so badly he’s willing to openly deceive his loved ones and risk alienating the very people whose help he needs, just like I did. He knows time is running out, just like I did, and he hurtles headlong towards the precipice, desperate to achieve his dream before it’s too late, just like I did.
When Whitney asks how he found her, he tells her the same thing I told the one actress willing to throw in her lot with this quixotic dream, a dream that would crumble a day later when I suffered a physical collapse and made the trip to the emergency room.
How did we find each other?
Up to now, James’ story and mine have been only tangentially related—while my instability was the result of inborn chemistry, his seems rooted in something very much like brainwashing—but with about 20 minutes to go, a shift happens in Brigsby Bear that robbed me of my breath.
We cut to a psychiatric hospital.
I have seen many depictions of psych wards since my own week in one seven years ago. There’s always some moment that reminds me a little bit of my experience. But great movies have this power to transport us, and watching Brigsby Bear, I was fully transported, for the first time, to the place where I struggled to assemble something that looked like the life I’d tried so hard to burn down.
There’s always a temptation to depict a psych ward as a place of intense feeling where characters beaten down by the weight of their sorrow can have unbearably emotional discussions that move them towards ultimate catharsis. Brigsby Bear, though, nails the true mundanity of a psych ward with shocking verisimilitude. It so perfectly evokes the numb melancholy, and the resignation, as James drifts through days playing cards with other patients, eating ice cream, doing group exercise. Just passing time.
At the art therapy table, James meets a patient named Eric (Andy Samberg). This type of scene is usually an art therapist’s dream, an opportunity for crayons to exorcise patients’ demons and make them whole. But James does the kind of art therapy that I did on the psych ward. “What are you working on?” Eric asks.
“Some circles,” James replies, and holds up a piece of paper that does indeed bear several small circles. Eric looks, then gets back to his own project.
It’s a brief connection, long enough to prove they both still exist, but not so long that they’re forced to acknowledge the pain of their situation. Just two people nodding as they pass on their solitary journeys of trying to accept that, at least for now, this is reality.
There’s a fine line to walk in depicting unstable people in film. And I’d suggest it comes down to whether the goal is to generate sympathy or empathy.
Sympathy is a feeling of pity directed towards someone. It flows in one direction, so it exists at a reserve, and never risks making an audience truly uncomfortable. Films that treat emotionally unstable people with sympathy often have a veneer of respect, because they never rock the audience’s understanding of what it means to be unstable, and allow viewers to walk away fulfilled, but leave the movie behind.
As someone who’s been in the place being depicted, movies that treat emotional instability with too much sympathy are painful to watch, and sometimes offensive. Sympathetic portrayals offer a hollow uplift that evades the complexity of the climb I still do every day, all of my routines, my joys, and my sorrows, representing some part of an attempt to leave behind an experience that I know I never will.
Empathy, on the other hand, is a feeling that you’re sharing someone else’s pain. It’s a reciprocal relationship between audience and character, and it risks discomfort. The stories I find empathetic are often labeled “insensitive,” since they sometimes allow you a big laugh at something an unstable person says, or make you angry at something an unstable person does.
Making unstable people into objects of derision is, of course, highly offensive. But there’s value in the risk of making them intricate. Sometimes, when an unstable person does something from a place of instability, it’s pretty funny. And to deny that is to deny the essential humanity of the emotionally unstable.
Brigsby Bear is a story that generates empathy. With an opening sequence that traffics in the fantastical, it bypasses our impulse to look for realism, and the themes of instability sneak up on us—there’s a reason the shift to the psych ward is breathtaking; we never imagined this was where a movie written and directed by Saturday Night Live staff was headed. And suddenly, the audience is forced to wonder if it was OK to be laughing all this time.
It was OK. Because life is messy, and instability is messy, and not every film about an unstable person should be viewed through the flattening lens of an eventual breakdown. James didn’t know he was headed for a psych ward, and by positioning us so that we didn’t expect it either, the filmmakers bond us to him so that we share his shock and distress.
“The movies,” Roger Ebert famously said, “are like a machine that generates empathy.”
He didn’t say sympathy. And I suspect he was very deliberate in that choice. I’ve always believed movies have the power to change the world, and when I was in trouble—the term I usually use for the spring of 2011, because the term manic episode with psychosis hurts too much—that belief was wrapped up in what I now recognize as inflated self-esteem or grandiosity, one of the seven diagnostic criteria for Bipolar I disorder that I soon had to accept. When I thought my film would save the world, I meant it in a direct, literal, and immediate way.
But when I think of Ebert’s quote, I still feel a flicker of the feeling that burst into a wildfire that spring. Because if movies can teach us empathy, then that can inspire us to change ourselves. And if you believe that, then making the right kind of movie really is something like changing the world, one viewer at a time.
In the end, it’s James’ passion for filmmaking that proves his salvation. While he’s passing time on a psych ward, his friends bring his parents the raw footage for his movie, and they sit on the couch to watch James stand in a valley in full Brigsby suit.
“I LOVE makin’ a MOVIE!” James bellows, overflowing with joy.
His parents watch with tears in their eyes as they recognize the simple passion at the root of all this erratic behavior. And when he comes home, they’re ready to help him synthesize that passion with a stable existence.
That task took me longer to accomplish than it takes James, but movies traffic in that kind of simplifying magic. It took me years to build myself up to the point that I could return to the idea of creating art on stable footing, but I was carried by the passion that set me off in the first place. I needed to harness it. It was the only way I knew how to connect with the world.
From the moment we meet him, James longs to make sense of his existence. And the man he’s always known as his father offers him a key: “We have dreams and imaginations to help us escape.” And nothing could be worse than to believe that becoming healthy and stable would require robbing yourself of that gift.
There’s nothing to explicitly suggest that the finale of Brigsby Bear is anything but literal. When our full cast of characters arrive at a theater bearing a marquee that reads, THE BRIGSBY MOVIE I MADE WITH MY FRIENDS|WORLD PREMIERE|SOLD OUT, everything basically tracks. But there’s been a huge jump in time between James’ escape from the psych ward and this finale, and everything about this closing sequence feels just a bit too perfect. Whitney, the diner waitress whom we last saw traumatized by her role in this crime, insisting she’d never participate in more Brigsby Bear even as James declared he was in love with her, is on-screen offering Brigsby a passionate kiss. Even Eric, James’ psych ward friend who seemed severely impaired when we last saw him, is now a co-star, beaming on-screen as he places a medal on Brigsby, apparently healthy and whole.
The power of storytelling has healed everyone. A world that’s so far been painfully realistic is suddenly a realm of transformative magic. As I say, there’s no reason to think this is some kind of dream sequence. But it feels an awful lot like a dream I once had.
The last thing we witness before this leap into a world of wish-fulfillment is James’ exit from the psych ward. “How are you planning to break outta here?” Eric asks.
“It’s pretty complicated,” James says. And then he throws a TV through a window.
My dream worked in reverse. I was already out.
I got to walk away from the psych ward, armed with a new regimen of pills and a plan that put me on the path to stability. I’ve been stable ever since the spring of 2011, and that makes me one of the very lucky ones. When the door shut behind me, I knew that it shut on people whose road would be longer, and harder, and might never lead to the health I’m so unbelievably lucky to have.
But this pain that I had the privilege to walk away from stuck with me. And after years of struggle and work, after I’d finally begun making the art that I could only rant nebulously about back then, I dreamed that the psych ward was just how I’d left it. I dreamed it was quiet and dim as all the patients I’d come to know shuffled toward lights-out.
I dreamed there was a rumbling. And then I dreamed that the wall of the hospital crumbled as I burst through riding atop a tank (nobody ever said dreams had to involve subtle imagery).
I dreamed that all these people were relieved of their pain, and they poured out around me into the big, wide, joyful future. I dreamed my passion had finally done what I set out to: heal a wounded world.
It was just a dream. But we have those to help us escape, and learn, and heal. If we’re lucky, we can use them to do the same for other people, too. And nothing can take that away, ever.