Aggressively upbeat, Forbes' filmic tribute to her late, manic-depressive father is high-caliber entertainment.
Infinitely Polar Bear
Somehow, some way, filmmaker Maya Forbes has made mental illness adorable. Actually, that “somehow” is in truth a someone. Mark Ruffalo stars in Forbes’ true-to-life family story Infinitely Polar Bear as Cam Stuart, an eccentric, manic-depressive husband to a black working woman, Maggie (Zoe Saldana), and two young girls, Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky, Forbes’ daughter) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide). Set in 1970s Boston, the film is based on Forbes’ childhood, though more specifically, it’s a love letter to her father.
We meet him wearing only red briefs, banging on the windows of his family’s locked car, Maggie and the kids cowering inside with their packed suitcases. After his mental breakdown and a short, institutionalized recovery, Cam is met with the biggest challenge of his life: to better support the family, Maggie goes off to school to get her MBA, leaving him to take care of the girls by himself in their tiny bohemian apartment, his mental faculties still out of whack. She promises to visit on the weekends, but that may not be enough to keep the house in order.
If the premise sounds dreary, don’t be dissuaded; Polar Bear is an almost aggressively upbeat film in which entertainment and fun is of high priority. Ruffalo’s casting is the cornerstone of the whole production. Everything revolves around him: he sets the tone and leads the scenes, and is very much the heart of the film. Very few actors could make manic depression look cute, but if you’ve ever seen Ruffalo and those soulful eyes on-screen before, you know the challenge is well within his acting capabilities. Cam says some nasty things to his wife and kids, things that would rupture even the strongest family bonds (he occasionally abandons the girls and even flips them off from time to time).
But despite this, he never becomes someone we don’t want to be around. He’s full of love and vim and has a voracious need to make people happy. His off-key sense of humor has trickled down to his girls, resulting in funny, disarming exchanges that come from left field. Cam’s almost always off the rails, but there’s a beauty to his rawness. Sometimes he says things most parents wish they could say but wouldn’t ever dare to. His brutal honesty is admirable, if a wholly unconventional for a parent of two.
The movie, like Cam, is bursting with life. There’s a fluidity to the storytelling that feels refreshing in a sea of family dramedies that too often feel emotionally stiff and segmented. Those movies play out like this: Funny scene. Serious scene. Funny Scene. Serious scene. One minute you’re laughing, the next you’re nodding your head with a stern expression, arms folded. In Polar Bear, the laughs bleed into the dramatic scenes, and most moments of happiness have a tinge of melancholy or sadness lurking in the subtext.
What Forbes does that’s so great is sensitize us to the unconventional inner-workings of the family until their ostensibly wacko ways of doing things feel normal and even sweet (Me and You and Everyone We Know comes to mind). When Cam gets upset with the girls, he throws things and storms off, screaming things like, “I can’t take this anymore!” He’s yelling at his girls, which is scary, but the fact that he doesn’t condescend to them and trusts them enough to share his feelings openly swells the heart. Cam’s room is packed with gizmos and appliances in different stages of repair, and we often see him tinkering with something, whether it be a bicycle gear or a sewing machine or old Polaroids. Maggie tells him she could never sleep in a room so messy with doodads and tchotchkes, but after a while his clutter only makes him more endearing, both to Maggie and to us.
If there’s a downside to Forbes’ upbeat style it’s that she doesn’t give us enough moments of respite. The film flies by, which may count as a good thing to most, though I found the lack of down time to be slightly problematic. Forbes doesn’t allow us to be sad for long before she rushes on to the next dose of positivity and comic hysteria. Like I said, I love the movie’s fluidity, but a bit more narrative asymmetry might have given the story a more interesting shape.
The child actors are exactly where they need to be, conveying intelligence and wit without coming off as too precocious. Not only did Forbes have her daughter helping out with the film, but her husband, Wallace Wolodarsky, produced, and several other family members played small parts in making the film a reality. Infinitely Polar Bear is truly a family affair, like a movie version of a mom and pop shop with Forbes’ father’s name written in big letters on the sign above the entrance. One can only imagine he’d be ecstatic to know that his daughter has turned their family story into a film that will touch so many others.