EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a capsule review. The full review will be released once the film hits theatres.
Maya Forbes’ big-screen memoir, Infinitely Polar Bear, is a movie about family that is also sweet enough to be a family film. Dedicated to the writer/director’s parents, it is one of the more accessible titles available that deals with manic depression and mental illness. However, that should not be a slight against it. An outstanding cast, led by a superb Mark Ruffalo and scene-stealing turns from the two newcomers who play his stubborn-headed daughters, elevate the film’s somewhat digestible portrait of bipolar disorder.
Ruffalo plays Cameron Stuart, a free-spirited kid raised with a silver spoon but later kicked out of Harvard. On campus in the late 1960s, he met the bohemian Maggie (Zoe Saldana) with whom he soon started a family. When Cameron comes out of the hospital, medicated but ecstatic by thoughts of his daughters – Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) – he moves into a dim apartment in a squalid Cambridge neighborhood with his family.
Maggie decides to get her MBA from Columbia University – but this means he has to watch the girls for 18 months. (She will return to be their saving grace on the weekends.) This is a big request that Cameron and his daughters both doubt will end up without tears or torment. Maggie hopes that he will retain a routine that can keep him focused and, therefore, more healthy.
Despite some profane spills of frustration and outlandish wardrobe choices, Cameron avoids veering into a terrifying character. For Forbes’ drama, that is a strength and a weakness. As a portrayal of mental illness, Infinitely Polar Bear does not go for heightened moments of anguish and melodrama, However, it is also a palatable treatment, sometimes cornered into quirk that feels a bit thin.
As the fickle but focused father, Mark Ruffalo sinks into the role with ease. Not too far from the drifting figure of misplaced responsibility that he embodied terrifically in films like You Can Count on Me and The Kids are All Right, Ruffalo gives the character a warm albeit overbearing personality. Wolodarsky and Aufderheide, meanwhile, give realized performances with depth and a splash of bitter humor. Both actors, making their screen debuts, understand the circumstances and are every bit Ruffalo’s equal – sometimes matching him on the swear count. Their chemistry is the cohesive that makes us buy that this bedraggled family unit can stay and survive together.
Cameron’s struggle to raise his girls could have had more ebbs and the quick flow from season to season is too polished. However, as a personal project that features both scars and sweetness, Infinitely Polar Bear is bolstered by excellent acting and full of rich emotional detail.