Sundance 2017: Brigsby Bear will make you see Luke Skywalker in a new light

There’s a certain type of offbeat comedy that tends to play well at the Sundance Film Festival – quirky, heartfelt, characterful – and every year you tend to get a breakout hit. This year it looks set to be Brigsby Bear’s turn (it’s already been picked up for release by Sony Pictures Classics) and the premise alone is enough to make you start to see Luke Skywalker in a new light…

I went into the screening knowing nothing, and the film starts with James (SNL’s Kyle Mooney, who also co-writes) living in a bunker with ‘parents’ Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams). Living in what’s presumably a post-apocalyptic wasteland, James’ only interaction with the outside world is the occasional trip to the glass observatory to look at the shoddily-made animatronic animals living outside. The rest of the time he spends watching his favourite TV show, Brigsby Bear. Well, it’s the only TV show he has access to in the bunker. Picture a live-action, sci-fi Teddy Ruxpin, with special effects that’d make old Doctor Who or Star Trek look polished, and you're partway there. For the full effect, you need to throw in some bizarre supporting characters – including a villainous sun with a human face – and some peculiar moral lessons.

Brigsby Bear is James’ entire world, and his room is kitted out with the fuzzball’s merchandise. He chats online with other Brigsby fans, and obsesses over plot points and episode breakdowns. So far, so oddball. But the film takes a left turn when police bust into the bunker, revealing that the outside world is perfectly safe, and that James has been held captive since being kidnapped as a young child. Most shocking of all to James is that Brigsby Bear isn’t a well-known national TV hit, but something that Ted has been producing in a warehouse, for an audience of precisely one. Sort of like Be Kind Rewind meets Room. If you’re worried I’m getting spoilerific, fear not – this all happens within the first 10 minutes of the movie.

Once James is back with his real parents, he struggles to adjust to normal life, and particularly the lack of new episodes of Brigsby. There’s a lot of comedy mined from James’ fish-out-of-water fumblings (his Google searches are a hoot) and his lack of social skills. In an effort to gain some form of closure, he decides to make a Brigsby Bear movie to lay his past to rest. Gathering some of Ted’s props that were confiscated by the police, and utilising the skills of filmmaker friend Spence (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), he sets out to conclude the sci-fi bear’s adventures once and for all.

What follows is a frequently hilarious and often touching tribute to the power of sci-fi, cult curios, and the filmmaking process. It wears its geeky heart on its sleeve, and never patronises James’ endeavour, even when finding the humour in it. Brigsby Bear will feel familiar to anyone who grew up watching crummy sci-fi or fantasy on TV, or obsessing over the details of a fantasy world. Mooney provides the film’s heart, and gets most of the laughs with his all-too-literal, Drax-like, manchild take on the world, but he’s aided by a clutch of terrific supporting players, including Ryan Simpkins as his not always sympathetic sister, and Greg Kinnear as a police officer whose background in Shakespearean acting comes in handy for the role of a Gandalf-esque wizard in Brigsby Bear.

Then there’s Hamill, who’s very much a supporting actor, with only a handful of scenes. But he makes every one of his moments count. There’s an unexpectedly tender connection between him and James (despite the fact he, y’know, abducted him), and Ted’s no one-dimensional cardboard cutout. The role also showcases Hamill’s gift for voice-acting, as he brings Brigsby to life with a unique, high-pitched intonation. It’s a welcome reminder of what a talented actor Hamill is, which is often overlooked in the shadow of franchise behemoth Star Wars. At the screening I was at, Hamill jokingly said that what appealed to him about this film was; “I had lines… No hood removal,” taking a swipe at his dialogue-less role in The Force Awakens.

Brigsby Bear is an ideal chance to sample a different side of Hamill before Star Wars: The Last Jedi brings Luke Skywalker back to the forefront of the intergalactic franchise. So see it as soon as you can, before it becomes everybody’s favourite new cult comedy…

Brigsby Bear is awaiting a release date.

Matt Maytum
Deputy Editor, Total Film

I'm the Deputy Editor at Total Film magazine, looking after the long-form features there, and generally obsessing over all things Nolan, Kubrick and Pixar. Over the past decade I've worked in various roles for TF online and in print, including at GamesRadar+, and you can often hear me nattering on the Inside Total Film podcast. Bucket-list-ticking career highlights have included reporting from the set of Tenet and Avengers: Infinity War, as well as covering Comic-Con, TIFF and the Sundance Film Festival.