LFF 2017: Brigsby Bear Review

“Room meets Frank meets The Truman Show meets Be Kind Rewind”

On the opening night of the London Film Festival, Brigsby Bear was introduced by the festival’s programmer as ‘what happens when people who made their careers on SNL make a film about child abduction’. She’s not far wrong. From the mind of SNL alumni, director Dave McCreary, and headed up by producer Andy Samberg (who also makes a cameo appearance), Brigsby Bear is truly a light hearted and humorous take on kidnapping and abduction. 

Brigsby Bear has drawn numerous comparisons to several critically acclaimed films, the most obvious of which is Room – predominantly for its subject matter. Let’s be clear, that is really the only thing those two films have in common. I personally found myself reminded of Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank because of McCreary’s ability to slide seamlessly between absolute tragedy and a genuinely honest laugh out loud moment. Also, something to do with a monolithic character dress up (you know – with massive heads).  

Though it is Be Kind Rewind that Brigsby Bear resembled the most, for me. Widely regarded as both funny and sweet, it is a film which also created a very strong contender for a second Ghostbusters theme. It is the thread of creativity running through both films characters, and the films themselves, that make them so similar. The likeable and naive main characters (Brigsby’s James and Be Kind‘s Jerry) keep us believing that they can achieve their wildly unattainable dreams. They are forces for creative positivity, pushing us to realise that the world isn’t such a bad place, and we can make other people happy by being ourselves. It’s exactly the kind of message that we need right now.

Brigsby Bear tells the story of James, a young man who was abducted as a baby and has lived underground with his two captors for his entire life. His ‘father’, Mark Hamill, and his ‘mother’ (Jane Adams), seem like pretty reasonable people – albeit the weird dinnertime hand shaking ritual and the weird stuffed animals in their garden.  James is rescued from the disturbingly homely underground bunker and returned to his real family within the first ten minutes. There’s a reunion with his father (Matt Walsh), mother (Michaela Watkins) and teenage sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins). Claire Danes plays James’ psychiatrist, who reveals to him that the TV show he grew up watching (the ONLY thing he watched for 25 years) is not actually real. Rather, it was created and filmed by his kidnapper Dad. James is the only person to have seen the show Brigsby Bear, and even the ‘friends’ he spoke to on forums about it turned out to have been his kidnapper parents all along. 

After befriending Spencer (“Mr Spencer”) at a party, and employing the help of both his sister, some friends and the local aspiring thespian cop Detective Vogel (played by Greg Kinnear), James sets about creating the Brigsby Bear Movie – an epic finale to the hours and hours of the TV show made solely for him. Of course there are hiccups on the way (including a home-made bomb, stealing police evidence, a bad drugs trip and time spent in a mental institution), but Brigsby Bear has a happy ending, thank goodness.

I think the real highlight of Brigsby Bear is the sincerity it manages to pull off within its characters, and this in part due to a fantastic performance by Kyle Mooney as James. He has some of the funniest lines (‘what’s wrong with you?’… ‘I was abducted as a baby..’), and delivers them with such straight-faced integrity that we genuinely feel for him, even whilst guffawing with laughter. Whilst James story is perhaps unbelievable, the relationships he forms with his ‘new’ family and friends keep us intrigued and engaged in the story. Particularly the arc of James and Aubrey as they reconnect as siblings which (unless you’ve got a heart of stone) will make you feel super happy.

There is some finer point being made somewhere in the background of Brigsby Bear about how television, cult or otherwise, can help us through difficult moments in life. James frequently talks about how Brigsby was all he had whilst he was kidnapped and when the Brigsby videos go viral, people are enchanted by it’s quirkiness. Cult TV features heavily throughout the film, Spencer’s bedroom is filled with Star Trek posters – a programme itself that was slightly out of the mainstream to begin with, but is deeply loved and obsessed over by it’s fans. A bit like Brigsby, perhaps?

The film never reveals Ted and April’s true intentions or motivations behind abducting James. At one point Brigsby Bear almost gets there but it stops because James’ character is not interested in those things. We learn what James wants to learn, we go where James goes. He isn’t really interested in his captor’s motives (probably because he has not been able to mentally mature properly), and he still sees them as good people. Of course, the process of creating the Brigsby Bear Movie is an attempt at processing his trauma and coming to terms with his life now, but fortunately the film doesn’t push this too much. Brigsby Bear is light hearted, and succeeds because it doesn’t delve too deeply into James’ experience.

We are left with a sort of surreal, strange yet emotionally savvy film, which also fits very comfortably into the comedy genre. Honestly, t’s just a really, really lovely film with a stellar cast and a ethereal soundtrack. I can’t wait for the Brigsby Bear TV series.  

LFF Round-up: The Levelling

In 2014, intense rainfall flooded the farmlands of Somerset, UK. Land became waterlogged, crops were destroyed – buildings, bridges and homes were washed away in the flooding. In true British form, we ‘kept calm and carried on’, but the effects of the floods can still be seen in the landscape today. Hope Dickson Leach’s first feature film The Levelling sets its narrative around this disastrous period – and investigates the connection between nature and humanity, with breathtaking results.

Clover (Game of Thrones‘s Ellie Kendrick) returns home to the family farm after the sudden death of her brother, Harry. As she re-connects with her father, it is clear that there is a huge fracture within their family – bought to light by Harry’s suicide. Both Clover and her father, Aubrey (David Troughton) battle with their grief, and inability to communicate with each other. It becomes clear to Clover that life on the farm for her brother was not what it seemed and although Aubrey insists that Harry’s death was an accident, Clover starts to realise the issues run deeper than she could have imagined. Both father and daughter, inept at dealing with their own emotions, struggle through the aftermath of his death – eventually learning that they both must accept their own feelings of guilt before they can move on.

The Levelling is a film of little dialogue. What is said between Clover and Aubrey holds great meaning and is deliberate. There is little room for small talk or chatter, there are no wasted words or ‘filler’. It is also within the silences between dialogue (of which there are many) that The Levelling is at it’s most captivating. From the very outset, the lead-up to Harry’s death, we are engaged by images. The stark contrast between the lucid party sequence (colourful fire, costume and frantic camera movements) and the following scene as Clover arrives at the farm, explains everything we need to know without words. As Clover arrives, the farm is dull, grey and washed out. There is something wrong here. The interluding shots between scenes of animals swimming in water remind us of the flooding, and consequently of Clover’s feelings of guilt.

The vast majority of the shots are handheld, following Clover around the farm, watching her as a bystander as she tries to make sense of her brothers death. The Levelling is shot simply but with great conviction. The lighting and set design makes the most of what is already there, giving the film a sense of absolute realism, as is so often the style with British indie films. It undermines the hard work of director Hope Dickson Leach and the crew to say that it’s ‘no frills’ filmmaking, but the style is uncomplicated and modest, and all the better to immerse us into the narrative. Dickson Leach has talked about the films tight budget and shooting schedule, and whilst that might have produced a lesser film for some – in this case it has made the film pretty remarkable. Working with what was already available, shooting in natural light, using pre-existing farm buildings yet focusing on the two main characters relationships to each other sincerely pays off.

Ellie Kendrick’s performance is also a real highlight of the film. We watch her unravel in  front of our eyes, and Kendrick is superb at portraying the emotions pulling Clover in two different directions. She wants to be angry at Aubrey for kicking her out, angry at Harry for killing himself but she is too preoccupied with her own sense of guilt for not returning during the floods, that she can’t make sense of anything. Kendrick delivers an incredible performance throughout.

Under the surface, The Levelling also explores the relationship between humans and nature. Life and death are constant themes throughout the film. The catalyst for the film’s events is the death of Harry, and Clover constantly encounters death throughout the film. She discovers the badgers, which have been killed, and in one traumatic scene, Aubrey orders her to shoot a baby calf. Despite desperately not wanting to, Clover obliges – shooting the calf with a shotgun (similar to the one which Harry killed himself with). Clover’s job (a trainee vet) means that she is constantly in contact with the circle of life – bringing new life into the world, and watching animals die. It’s cyclical – much like Aubrey and Clover’s relationship in the film. As soon as it seems that the two of them see eye to eye, their relationship deteriorates again.

The idea of nature going on regardless of whether or not we are here to see it is very prevalent within The Levelling. The farm must carry on, the work will never stop and if the rain is going to come, it will. Nature doesn’t care for Clover and Aubrey’s grief or guilt. As Aubrey says, ‘we move on…’ The cows still have to be milked, nature will not stop for the death of one human.

This message, though seemingly very distressing, becomes one of hope by the very end of the film. It is only as the heavens open and it finally begins to rain, that Aubrey allows himself to grieve. He breaks down crying in Clover’s arms – reiterating that cyclical bond with nature yet again. The rain mimics Aubrey’s tears whilst Aubrey and Clover’s roles are reversed – Clover is comforting her father.

The Levelling is a small film, with a lot of heart, and a lot to say about grief, humanity and nature.