It’s hard to say what exactly we expected from an abduction fallout film with a “Saturday Night Live” creative pedigree. Comedy straddling the line between subversive and offputting, maybe. But earnestness? That wasn’t on the list.
Yet sincerity turns out to be the default tone for “Brigsby Bear,” making this indie’s odd concept of an accidental man-child wrapped up in a Teddy Ruxpin fantasy world feel odder still in the execution. The approach can be a reach, but on the whole it works better than you might guess. There’s something of an unplugged “Elf” in the story that co-writer and “SNL” cast member Kyle Mooney cooks up with director and “SNL” writing staffer Dave McCary.
We’re still getting a handle on geek-coiffed, bespectacled James Pope (Mooney) and his webmastery immersion in an awful VHS-era kiddie show called “Brigsby Bear” when the truth comes out: oblivious James is a childhood kidnap victim. His cultie parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) aren’t really his parents at all, but wackos who snatched him from the maternity ward. On those occasions when onetime toymaker “Dad” left their desert bunker, it was to head to a secret warehouse to craft more Brigsby for the serial’s lone viewer. (Hamill might be riding his “Force Awakens” career uptick, but the movie also cleverly trades on his longtime gig doing cartoon voice work.)
Sympathetic authorities (notably cop Greg Kinnear) assume they’ve written an overdue happy ending when they find James and return him to his folks (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins, with Ryan Simpkins as his weirded-out teenage sister). But James has serious — and engagingly seriocomic — trouble adjusting, interested in nothing but rehashing the quasi-puppet show episodes that have been his entire world.
And then, between comic-con culture and YouTube, James begins to find a place for himself after all. His new purpose: shooting a feature conclusion to Brigsby’s adventures, with help from his sister’s good-natured genre-head friend (appealing Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and Kinnear’s closet thespian.
The movie makes mostly nominal forays into legit ramifications territory. Wryness specialists like Walsh struggle at playing distressed, although Claire Danes helps ground things as a family therapist, and producer Andy Samberg adds “Cuckoo’s Nest” life to some effective institutional scenes.
We end up rooting for Mooney’s endearing, damaged-yet-fulfilled dreamer to succeed, just as the character’s various newfound pals do. The feeling is surprisingly genuine.
Directed by Dave McCary. Written by Kevin Costello and Kyle Mooney. Starring Mooney, Greg Kinnear, Mark Hamill. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, Embassy Waltham. 97 minutes. PG-13 (thematic elements, brief sexuality, drug material, teen partying).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.