Review by James Land
A manic-depressive mess of a father tries to win back his wife by attempting to take full responsibility of their two young, spirited daughters, who don’t make the overwhelming task any easier.
From the outset, it’s apparent that Cameron Stuart (Mark Ruffalo) is not your average father. In fact, he’s not normal at all. He struggles with bi-polar disease, also known as manic-depression, in 1978 when the story begins. A frightening manic episode lands him in a mental institution for a while, compounding the struggles his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) and his two daughters Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) experience as they try desperately to make ends meet. When Cameron gets back into a routine and out of the halfway house that followed his institutionalization, Maggie decides to study for her MBA in New York, leaving Cameron in Boston to take care of the girls. The movie follows the broken father and his daughters as they work to find balance in a decidedly unbalanced life.
“Infinitely Polar Bear” is the kind of movie we see very few of any more, a character study that focuses strictly on relationships. It’s intimate in every meaningful way, largely because of Ruffalo’s portrayal of the chain-smoking Cameron, a role that requires equal parts control and chaos mixed together to let the audience understand the reasons behind his irresponsibility and momentary failures as a father. He doesn’t become overwhelmed with being a dad so much as he becomes overwhelmed with being alive. The events which cause him to have a manic episode or stop taking his medications aren’t always apparent. Life ticks along in its fashion until, suddenly, Cam is thrown out of his groove like a needle hitting a scratch on the vinyl surface of a record. Ruffalo plays it with a wide-eyed tilt that shows a man who suffers through his mistakes, but just can’t avoid them.
While Cam’s wife studies during the week, she does come home most weekends. Saldana remains versatile as Maggie ranges from fear to exasperation, sprinkling in moments of joy as she watches her husband grapple with his demons. She’s a more complex character than she seems, leaning on her mentally ill husband to care for her children while she finishes her education. In the end, whether or not she’ll stay with him becomes less important than the close bond he builds with their children. From her perspective, she’s working hard for their future, so whatever the outcome for her marriage, it will all be worth it. It’s a refreshing change of pace for Saldana after so much action and sci-fi.
Director Maya Forbes manages to create a semi-autobiographical story without letting it fall too far into sentimentalism. This trick is especially impressive given that her daughter, Imogene Wolodarsky, plays older child Amelia (look for husband Wallace Wolodarsky in an annoyingly funny cameo as Maggie’s traveling mate). There is an expected amount of nostalgia, but Forbes directs with a light touch, letting the actors feel each moment and move easily through each scene. Imogene nails her part as the older sister who connects most with her father, and the role that emulates Forbes’ experience. The children both work well, exuding independence and wisdom.
While “Polar Bear” moves thoughtfully, it allows the audience to understand the chaotic nature of Cameron’s illness. This works against it in moments where the narrative fails to set the scene properly, leaving viewers guessing as to the trigger for one of his episodes. Most people who don’t live with or know a mentally ill person won’t recognize the signs or care to look for them. This limits the scope of the film’s audience somewhat, if only because chaos is confusing and few have the patience to sift through the chaos and understand it. One subplot involving Cam’s wealthy family doesn’t get nearly enough attention. We don’t find out why they’ve allowed him to flounder without their help. Is it because of his mental illness? Is it because he married an African-American woman? These questions never really get explored but could have given the film a broader spectrum of issues to address. As it sits, it’s a heartfelt and interesting film, but I left feeling there was a little more to the story.
The story that remains, however, grips its audience at times. It drew me into Cam’s sense of desperation and confusion, the fear his children felt at times and how these moments contrasted the many happy times, such as when Cam convinces the girls to let him meet the other kids in the neighborhood and invite them home. He’s at his best as a father when he strives to include himself in his children’s lives, and everyone else in his own zany adventures. At his worst, he’s leaving his children home alone at night to get drunk. At his best, he’s sewing younger daughter Faith a Flamenco skirt at the last minute, brow furrowed tightly with one Lucky Strike hanging out the side of his mouth and another simmering in the ash tray.
“Infinitely Polar Bear” is full of these images and moments, the unvarnished truth that it can be frighteningly hard to be the child of a mentally ill parent, but it can also be wonderful. These moments are too good to pass up.
At select theaters including the Angelika Film Centers in Dallas & Plano