Review

'Brigsby Bear' is a charming, affectionate tribute to the joys of amateur filmmaking

“Brigsby Bear” opens with well-worn VHS footage from a long-running but curiously little-seen children’s show called “Brigsby Bear Adventures,” about a talking ursine hero whose magical quests yield tidy if not always intuitive moral lessons (i.e., “Curiosity is an unnatural emotion!”). With its low-grade videography and special effects that could charitably be described as rudimentary, the show appears to have begun production in the 1980s, only to have somehow avoided either cancellation or a technological upgrade over the course of a staggering 25 seasons.

Its most devoted fan, who happens to be 25 himself, is James Pope (Kyle Mooney), a smart but sheltered naif who — due to uniquely intriguing circumstances that I’ll refrain from divulging here — has lived his whole life so far under Brigsby’s spell. With his thick glasses and bedraggled hair, James initially seems drawn along conventionally quirky movie-nerd lines. He’s a virgin and a math whiz, but most of all he’s an obsessive fan, a guy who can bring every party conversation to a halt by veering off into impenetrable realms of “Brigsby”-related arcana.

His loving parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), with whom he lives in an unspecified suburb (the film was shot in Utah), are understandably worried about his social life and his mental health. His jaded teenage sister, Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins), doesn’t care as much, so long as he doesn’t embarrass her. A therapist, Emily (Claire Danes), echoes Mom and Dad’s concern, and gently recommends that James make a clean break with Brigsby once and for all.

The charm of this disarmingly sweet comedy, directed by the first-time feature filmmaker Dave McCary from a script by Mooney and Kevin Costello, is not just that it completely disregards Emily’s advice, but also that it refuses to turn James into a target of easy mockery. Mooney, a regular cast member on “Saturday Night Live” (where McCary works as a segment director), downplays James’ eccentricity in order to emphasize his intelligence, his loyalty and, despite his admittedly narrow interests, his openness to new experiences. You’ve probably encountered less genial, more poorly adjusted pop-culture fanatics on social media.

Best and perhaps most unexpectedly of all, James’ obsession is infectious enough to make Brigsby fans out of the people around him, including those in the audience. You will laugh at much of what you see in “Brigsby Bear Adventures,” and perhaps be stirred by memories of Barney the Dinosaur, H.R. Pufnstuf or other small-screen educational kitsch relics from your own childhood. But the show never feels as though it’s been cooked up to elicit cheap laughs or the audience’s unearned superiority. From its animatronic talking bear to its solar-powered supervillain, Sun Snatcher (a visual nod to Georges Mélies’ 1902 classic, “A Trip to the Moon”), it has the integrity of a found artifact, and the goofy sincerity of something made with genuine love.

The question of who actually made the show, by which I mean within the context of the story, is answered fairly early on. In any event, the movie kicks into gear when James decides to make his own Brigsby movie and recruits a few buddies to help, among them his animation-whiz buddy, Spencer (Jorge David Lendeborg Jr., “Spider-Man: Homecoming”), and a friendly police detective named Vogel (a wonderful Greg Kinnear), who turns out to have one hell of an inner thespian.

It’s a wonderful development, mainly because you can tell that James’ buddies are motivated not by pity, but by their genuine, let’s-put-on-a-show enthusiasm. And so “Brigsby Bear” becomes a winning tribute to the joys of amateur filmmaking, one whose lovingly crafted sets and props recall the handmade sensibility and do-it-yourself spirit of other independent movies like “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” “Be Kind Rewind” and “Son of Rambow.”

It’s worth noting that all four of these films premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where whimsical movies about moviemaking can run the gamut from navel-gazing to extremely meta. In the case of “Brigsby Bear,” the story’s bracing vision of collaborative energy finds a fitting echo in the filmmakers’ own creative synthesis. Before they were snapped up by “SNL,” McCary and Mooney were longtime friends (along with Costello) and founding members of the sketch-comedy troupe Good Neighbor. Scrappy and modest though their movie may be, it all coheres beautifully, and with a sweetness that never feels faked.

The filmmakers keep a lot of offhand ideas and metaphors in play: childhood’s end, the therapeutic power of art, the endearing, exasperating nature of fan culture. To that end, it’s fitting that one of the movie’s best performances is given by Mark Hamill, whose two brief appearances here are so grounded, and so cleverly scaled to the story, that you almost don’t recognize him as one of the original faces of “Star Wars,” a much bigger demonstration of that curious phenomenon where a die-hard devotee becomes a creator.

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‘Brigsby Bear’

Rating: PG-13, for thematic elements, brief sexuality, drug material and teen partying

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Playing: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood

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justin.chang@latimes.com

@JustinCChang

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