First-time director Maya Forbes lived through what one could consider an eventful, possibly traumatic childhood. She was six years old in 1974 when her father suffered a series of mental breakdowns and her parents obligatorily separated. She moved with her sister and mother to the small Boston town of Cambridge where her mother struggled to find a job, keep a tiny apartment, and send her daughters to a rough public school. In 1978, feeling that a higher education was the only way to gain adequate employment, she enrolled in Columbia Business School and left the children in the care of their father, returning only on weekends to sleep on the sofa.
This approximates the plot of Forbes’ debut feature, Infinitely Polar Bear. Names have been changed, and so forth. Her dad is now Mark Ruffalo (Cameron). Her mother is Zoe Saldana (Maggie). One of the two daughters (Amelia and Faith) is played by Forbes’ own, Imogene Wolodarsky, highlighting if need be, the highly personal nature of the project. (The Simpsons’ alumni and Forbes’ husband, Wallace Wolodarsky also produced.)
Infinitely Polar Bear is a film whose strengths are also its weaknesses and vice versa. The film is made up of small, often tender moments between the members of a dysfunctional family. That it is fragmentary and episodic in nature (intertitled seasons announce the passage of time) means that it also lacks narrative tension to some extent. To its credit, however, scenes build on each other cumulatively, and the effect of one on top of the other is greater than the individual parts, which initially seem overly ordinary.
Ruffalo’s character, Cam, is so inherently decent as to feel like there is not much at stake. Despite his mood swings and manic outbursts (which usually involve swearing or hurling inanimate objects) there is not a moment where we sense less than wholehearted devotion from the man towards his wife and children. This owes considerably to Ruffalo’s scene-chewing performance, which skirts a very precise border between tender and manic. (That Cam can put his kids to bed and desert them to go boozing without seeming totally reprehensible, for instance, is a credit to the actor.) That it never oversteps either boundary is a plus: the film is not cloyingly sentimental, nor is it over the top in its depiction of mental illness.
If anything, it fails to offer any great insight into Cam’s illness, or mental illness in general, being as it is, more situational than psychoanalytical. It is merely a man and his family getting by, trying to cope. That the illness is not addressed in great detail might be the point anyway: contextually the film is set in a time (the 1970’s) when such conditions were less widely understood or, at least, less discussed than they are today. What Forbes does convey effectively is the stigma involved. Cam is ostracised by his neighbours and his daughters, love him though they might, are perpetually embarrassed by his characteristic eccentricities. The only help Cam receives medically is to be prescribed with lithium, which he habitually neglects to take.
Zoe Saldana as his semi-estranged wife Maggie is equally as likeable. This is a woman who seems as though she hasn’t a bad bone in her body. Maggie’s sense of concern for her children and spouse never descends into harsh judgement, and she is endlessly supportive/trusting, given the circumstances.
That all the characters are so endearing is understandable, given the director’s personal affection for and affiliation with the material; this is clearly how she feels about her own family: sometimes difficult, but always dear.
Although the film is markedly understated in content, the form itself is relatively stylised, far removed from any documentary conceit. ‘Feel-good’ tropes, like its mostly ’60’s pop/soul soundtrack, mean it borders occasionally on being clichÃ©d (although the melancholy horns of George Harrison’s “Run of the Mill” are a rather striking denouement). In other words, it is realistic enough -in terms of writing, acting, production- to feel authentic, but it also knows its own bounds. The film never wallows in the hardship of the characters. Rather, the precise opposite: this is a film about how familial love deals with adversity, not succumbs to it, about how the precious moments shared sustain one to carry on.
This would be pure treacle if the film were more contrived than it is, or if the ending were explicitly happy. But the simplicity with which it may be seen to falter is also the source of its primary strength, which is a sense of great compassion, and ultimately, it strikes a fair balance of sentiment and avoids overly tidy conclusions.
Infinitely Polar Bear may not be a ground-breaking work, and it never sets out to be. But it does have an extraordinary deal of heart, and that is to its credit.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10