What if everything you knew about the world was a well-manufactured lie?
Many films before have tackled this premise, be it “The Matrix” or “The Truman Show,” but none surely with the darkly comic touch of “Brigsby Bear,” in which a 25-year-old named James (“Saturday Night Live” cast member Kyle Mooney) discovers that his parents are not his parents, that the supposed outside world is not in fact infected with a poisonous atmosphere, as he was told — and that his favorite TV program, “Brigsby Bear,” was but a mollifying bit of fiction that his “parents” concocted for decades.
Furthermore, the adults he has known as his “parents,” Tim (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams) in fact kidnapped James as a child, and have spent the ensuing years encasing him in their post-apocalyptic fiction, hidden beneath the deserts of the Southwest.
The Brigsby Bear shows are but one facet of Tim’s method of keeping his now-young-adult hostage happy.
“I couldn’t tell you how it was birthed, but at some point I just became obsessed with this idea of this guy who has a TV show that’s made just for him,” Mr. Mooney told The Washington Times recently.
Mr. Mooney, 32, came of age during the tail end of the VHS era. He houses a personal collection of vintage videotapes of public access and other community programming. The rarer the better; even better if they’re not available on YouTube.
“I love the kind of low-production-value [videos] where they’re trying to get this message across, but they’re using puppets or cartoon characters,” Mr. Mooney said. “It kind of teeters between super positive but also kind of creepy.”
It is that very aesthetic that informs the fictional “Brigsby Bear” videos that James watches early in the film. The titular bear interacts with both humans and other furry creatures on a cheap set and fights back against a roving sky villain known as the Sun Snatcher.
The episodes all end with an admonition against questioning authority.
The bears and other creatures of the fictitious program are voiced by Mr. Hamill, who has enjoyed a rather lengthy career voicing The Joker and other cartoon characters — in addition to a certain outer space franchise.
“We knew we wanted somebody that you wouldn’t immediately think of,” Mr. Mooney, who co-wrote the script with Kevin Costello, said of casting the part of Tim. “I think we could find plenty of older weird guys to play this part, but can they do a cartoon voice?”
“We needed to cast someone who is believable as this eccentric, and also is very creative and does the voices,” director Dave McCary, who grew up with Mr. Mooney in San Diego, said, adding he scoured tech websites to find vintage recording equipment to get the right look for James’ personal show.
“This is really this guy’s passion,” Mr. McCary said of Tim’s making the shows for his “son.”
With that as the rather unusual starting point of “Brigsby Bear,” the film must of course then bring James out of his cloistered environment and into the “real” world. Much to his surprise, the air is not toxic as his captors told him. And, to his horror, he learns that his favorite show was in fact made just for him.
There will be no more episodes of “Brigsby Bear.”
“It was nice to have the opportunity to take our time and develop a character. When you’re writing five-minute sketches, you’re really conscious of getting those laughs every 30 seconds or 15 seconds,” Mr. Mooney said of the vast difference of writing for SNL versus a feature-length script.
“One thing I liked about conceiving this and coming up with it was the vastness of the world to explore. The Brigsby stuff was so much fun to come up with and to think of the mythology of this show that’s gone on for like 20 years probably,” he said. “Only so much of it can end up on screen.”
Even though the film deals with kidnapping, a cultlike subterranean home and the reintegration back into society of a boy, now a young man, lacking in social skills and obsessed with a fictional television program, “Brigsby Bear” is surprisingly lacking in cynical and mean-spirited humor at either James or his circumstances.
“We like the idea that there’s no real villain in the film, and everyone really embraces James in his differences,” Mr. McCary said. “I think it’s just a good guideline for how to treat one another.”
“You see all the joy that comes from James when he’s talking and thinking about Brigsby Bear,” Mr. Mooney said of his avatar. “It’s not far off from the experience we were having making our first movie.”
Furthermore, James’ innocence and genuineness, the filmmakers believe, will make “Brigsby Bear” palatable to adults as well as adolescents and even preteens, who may recognize the awkwardness of the film’s hero at taking that first step into a larger world.
“We always felt … the script really tackled the emotionality of his experience and the love he had for his past life,” Mr. McCary said. “He didn’t have these ill feelings toward his abductors because he never felt in danger. He liked his life.”
Mr. Mooney boasts a fondness for the ‘80s films he grew up on, such as “The Goonies” and “E.T.,” which placed intelligent children into situations where they faced off against true meanies of the adult world.
“I’m not the first person to ever say this, but so many of those children’s films we grew up on had these dark elements,” Mr. Mooney said, citing both “The Dark Crystal” and “The Wizard of Oz” as sly influences on the “Brigsby Bear” aesthetic.
Mr. Mooney describes himself as an “incredibly nostalgic person,” as evidenced by the Snoopy T-shirt he wore to this interview — and further linking him with James, who is seen almost the entire running time of “Brigsby Bear” wearing the T-shirt of his favorite character.
“I don’t have any problems, I guess, projecting that to the world,” Mr. Mooney said of embracing his goofy side — on film and in real life.
“Brigsby Bear” opens in the District Friday.