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 who was 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. Their two daughters, Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide), have learned how to react to a manic-depressive dad. They do not mind when Cameron lets them skip school so they can frolic through the woods outside of Boston. (Forbes has many of these early family scenes shot on Super-8 reels.) However, the girls are also used to Cameron’s outbursts when he is off of his lithium. In one scene, Amelia, Faith and Maggie huddle together inside a car, as he prowls around it, wearing a red speedo and welder’s goggles, smacking the hood and windows with the menace of the T-Rex from Jurassic Park.
When Cameron comes out of the hospital, medicated but ecstatic by thoughts of his daughters, he moves into a dim apartment in a squalid Cambridge neighborhood with his family. Maggie tells him that she wants to get her MBA from Columbia University – but this will mean 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.
The rest of Infinitely Polar Bear, named after what Forbes’ dad called his condition, is spread out rather thinly amidst the seasons, as Cameron takes his lithium begrudgingly while focusing on giving his girls comfort and love. Sometimes, this is easier said than done. After a day of household chores, Cameron sometimes retreats to a nearby bar, leaving his girls without supervision. The daughters’ defense: what if rapists come to get them? Meanwhile, the family living room is filled with unfinished household projects, although it looks more like a messy kid’s bedroom than a destitute shelter for a mentally ill man and his girls.
Despite some profane spills of frustration and outlandish wardrobe choices, Cameron avoids veering into a terrifying caricature. As a portrait of mental illness, Forbes’ drama 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 uneasy given the subject matter.
Nevertheless, as the fickle but focused father, Mark Ruffalo sinks into the role with ease. He shuffles around the small apartment, munching on a half-lit cigarette and dragging his voice to sound like a lazed Marlon Brando. 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 an unexpected warmth. 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 cohesive chemistry makes us buy that this bedraggled family unit could stay and survive together.
The relationship between Cameron and his girls is like a lower-class version of the one from FX’s Louie. The father is trying to protect his girls from the dangers of the world while ignorantly putting himself into situations that heighten the chance of risk. (There is even a sequence when he strains and struggles to make a ruffled dress for Faith’s talent show that recalls a memorable scene from the Emmy-winning comedy.)
Like Louie, Infinitely Polar Bear also focuses on an interracial couple but does not do much to acknowledge the mixed-race portion of the relationship. As progressive a touch as that is, given that the film is set in late-1970s Boston, soulful soundtrack and all, it also feels like Forbes is avoiding a simmering conflict that never comes to a head. Saldana makes the most of her supporting turn as the emphatic wife and breadwinner, pushed nearly to tears of joy and bewilderment when she greets her family again, at a more caustic moment of their lives.
Running under 90 minutes, Forbes’ drama sometimes cleans up too easily. Cameron’s struggle to raise his girls could have had more ebbs and the quick flow from season to season is too polished. Regardless, Infinitely Polar Bear is a personal project with both scars and sweetness, bolstered by excellent acting and full of rich emotional detail.
“Crowd-pleaser” and “manic depression drama” often don’t go together. However, Infinitely Polar Bear is a different beast, rooted in truth and featuring superb performances.