Brigsby Bear is the sort of film that (I think) benefits from viewing it without knowing much about the actual story going in. I say that to suggest you take the time to watch it before reading this post, as I will be dialoguing rather directly with the film itself.
The film centres on Mooney’s character (James) who is on a journey of discovery, and as viewers we are given a like minded opportunity to discover the world that this eclectic team of writers, directors, comedic talent are also building around him through the story itself. It is a world that defies categorization in many ways but, as we are able to watch the layers of this film slowly being peeled back, it is also a world that feels more and more recognizable as the story unfolds.
Someone suggested to me that this is the kind of film that will stand out for people in different ways depending on the experiences we read into it. For me personally, as someone with an adopted child (internationally), I couldn’t help but view this movie through the lens of that journey. In the context of the film James is being returned to his “original” family after having been abducted as a baby, but the integration process of reentering the world for the first time mirrors what I saw and learned in the process of our adoption. The parents find themselves having to work through the unknowns (and knowns) of their child’s past while learning what it means to accept that past for all that it carries with it- abuse, darkness, loss, confusion, along with joys, comfort, identity. The process James goes through is learning how trust this new world, this new family he has entered into while also dealing with the emotional reality of the “family” and memories he is being forced to leave behind in the process. For as negative we might assume all this is and was (and we would probably be right to a great degree), what the film exposes for me is that this was the only family, the only world he had ever known up until this point. And that fact alone is significant to consider.
We adopted our son from an orphanage at 12 years of age. His birth parent(s) lived close to the orphanage before he was placed. So life in a confined area of a somewhat isolated community in a corner of a rather large Country was all he knew. The experience of being introduced to a whole new world, of having to learn to trust in this world (and shifting world view), was very real for this brave kid who had very little time to consider or prepare to face this new reality.
And as the adoptive parents of this kid I definitely resonated with the struggle of James’ parents in trying to define who James would be in this cross cultural context based on their own perceptions of who he should be in adjusting to this new world. This is especially true when it comes to working through this on a “psychological” and sociological level. It is far too easy to take the wrong approach when it comes to our role as new parents to this unfamiliar kid. And when I do it causes me to miss who this kid really is in the process, in a given moment. It also, and this perhaps the greatest struggle, causes me to miss what this kid actually needs in the process, in a given moment.
This struggle that I observed in Brigsby Bear is a struggle I (we) face every single day as adoptive parents. The fact that the experiences of our kids past remains a big part of who he is was a really hard thing to learn, and something we are still trying to wrap our minds around. This is true about the stuff we know. Even more true for the stuff that we don’t know, just as the parents of James must come to terms with his past being locked up in isolation for all his growing and developing years.
I have come to learn there is no greater reward than seeing some of these pieces of his past that are hidden to us now come to the surface. And yet for every new piece of the puzzle that makes up this wonderful kid that we have the privilege of discovering, I find myself having to relearn some of the lessons and realities of Brigsby Bear all over again.
I think a big part of the struggle on the side of me learning how to be a parent is that there is a mythos that is built into my interpretative process that I must continually tear down as well. There is a part of me (us) that assumed we were “saving” this kid from the darkness and abuse that he should never have had to endure. And of course a big part of us wanted him to have the opportunity to be able to leave that past behind for a more favourable future. The hardest thing was coming to learn that a big part of adopting was being willing to accept and embrace all of that stuff as a part of who he was and a part of what would shape him moving forward in this new family, this new world. This world he was leaving behind might seem entirely negative to us, and something that we felt compelled to save him from, but in reality these were friendships, realities, relationships, experiences that he was leaving behind, that he would find himself grieving and missing and reinterpreting through the lens of this new worldview. There is a scene in this film where James is sitting down and facing his captor that was especially powerful for me as I considered this thought. There has been little tougher for me than allowing my son the freedom to wrestle with his memories of his birth parents and celebrating his memories of life in the orphanage. Because as a parent it just makes me angry to consider what he had to endure in such a brief amount of years. But for him it is important. It is necessary. It is life giving even. And the film does a masterful job at juxtaposing the world of James’ isolation against his emergence into the world he is now coming to discover. For years he had been raised on episodes of Brigsby Bear where the imagination of these childhood images ended up mixing with subtle and confusing messages that had fostered empathy for his captors, for the world that had been handed to him. We catch glimpses in this show within a show of strange phrases such as “Prophecy is meaningless. Trust only your familial unit”, or “curiosity is an unnatural emotion!” These are phrases meant to instil in him a sense of compassion for the world that has kept him safe and fear for the world outside that might or could infringe on this sense of safety. And a part of the process for him as he remerges back into the world is figuring out how to come to terms with what is real and what is not, what is the truth and what are the lies that he has been told, and perhaps most significantly which emotions he can actually trust when it comes to what is good and what is bad in his mind.
And here’s the thing about the journey that James eventually embarks on as he confronts these conflicting emotions and thoughts. In losing this sense of safety and familiarity, and in being forced to face these fears, to confront the greater reality of this world, the film never devolves him into a caricature, a fish out of water story. A part of the fascination of Brigsby Bear as a film is coming to learn what it is that James knows and what he doesn’t know and how this all translates into his new social reality. He is educated but completely unaware at the same time, which becomes a fascinating study of James’ character as a layered and complicated (and wholly interesting) entity. And this is where the film uses the character of the bear itself to help pull these idiosyncrasies together in a meaningful way.
The way James has come to view himself is through this bear. And so this bear becomes his way of coping, of growing into his new reality and discovering new relationships and new experiences. Which was meaningful for me to watch on a symbolic level, as this was also true in the experience of our adoption. It is common for adoptive children to arrive with a greater level of maturity when it comes to understanding experiences other children their age have never faced. But it also true that they arrive in this cross cultural context with a level of maturity that seems below others in their age group. And this is difficult to know how to reconcile as parents. But what I have come to realize is that there is danger in simply choosing to see their ability to abandon some of these less mature aspects as the marker of the eventual maturity we want to see them reach. Far more often it is the places where these two seemingly competing notions are able to come together where our son has been able to grow into his new reality most effectively. For James’ parents, and for his sister, coming to accept Brigsby was in a very real way coming to accept James as well.
One of the interesting ways about how the story of Brigsby Bear moves forward is that things never truly resolve when it comes to James’ development or when it comes to offering us definite statements regarding the good and bad of his past and present (the kind that I want to impose). And I think this ambiguity was intentional. James never truly becomes normal, whatever normal means. The abusers are never truly given a full exposition regarding who they are and why they did what they did. The only resolve we really find is the idea that growth, healing, resolve, creativity- these all happen in the context of a caring community. And that really is what adoption is about- providing, showing, building and exemplifying the true strength of family as a caring community, one that can hopefully build a sense of trust and belonging as the unknown and untold parts of this story, and our story, continues to move forward.