Sony Pictures Classics
If you expect a film about a father suffering from a bipolar disorder to be heart-warming, life-affirming mush that will have you grabbing the nearest tissue box, Infinitely Polar Bear will surprise you. This film is loud, chaotic, and messy because the Stuart family is loud, chaotic, and messy – and they love each other fiercely. Infinitely Polar Bear does not dance around hot button issues; it pushes those buttons and then shows you how to survive afterwards.
Cameron Stuart (Marc Ruffalo) is handsome, charming, smart, funny, and bipolar. But his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) and his two daughters, Amelia (Imogene Wolodarksy) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide), love him unconditionally – even when he is wearing a bright red speedo and demanding they go on a boat ride in the middle of winter.
After this recent “breakdown” (as his family calls it), Cameron finds himself on the road to recovery when Maggie throws him a bit of a curve ball. Maggie and the girls are living in squalor, but more importantly, the girls are not getting a good education at their local public school.
When Maggie is accepted to Columbia’s graduate program she makes Cameron a deal – she will move to New York for eighteen months to get her degree and Cameron will move in with the girls and take care of them. At his therapist’s encouragement to get into a stable routine, Cameron agrees.
Infinitely Polar Bear deals with every day issues of struggling to provide a better life for one’s family, it just happens to be set against an unusual situation of having one parent dealing with a mental disorder. The narrative starts out as told through Amelia’s eyes and it quickly becomes clear that even though Amelia and Faith are growing up in a unique dynamic, they are not simply bystanders watching the world happen around them. Children can sometimes be portrayed as fragile characters that need to be protected, but the Stuart girls are spitfires in their own right. When Cameron tries to take the girls on a tour of his great-grandmother’s house (and promptly gets kicked out) the girls spend the drive home telling him how embarrassing he is and how he needs to think his ideas through. They do not suppress their feelings because of his disease, they yell at him like any pre-teen girls would do when embarrassed by their father.
Set in the the late 1970s, the film conveys the decade thanks to the spot on costume design from Kasia Walicka-Maimone and a fantastic soundtrack featuring songs from George Harrison, Ike and Tina Tuner, and The Doc Watson Family. Infinitely Polar Bear may take place in the 1970s, but writer/director Maya Forbes creates a timeless story of what it means to be a family – no matter what decade you are living in.
Ruffalo is the true star here and commits to his role as Cameron without reservation, portraying him as a man driven by love that has a tendency to play to the extremes of his emotions. Cameron may be prone to yelling and operating at an intense, near manic level (whether he is fixing a bicycle or making Faith a flamenco skirt), but it is his quieter moments that are the most captivating. Ruffalo’s expressive eyes indicate how much more is going on with Cameron. Even if he is in the middle of another tirade, you can see the myriad of emotions running through him as he tries to center himself again.
Thanks to Forbes’ direction, Wolodarksy and Aufderheide deliver natural performances that feel as though they were captured through unfiltered home video. Amelia and Faith are normal girls dealing with a big situation, but are not permanently traumatized by it.
Maggie’s decision to go to New York makes Saldana’s scenes few and far between, but the ones she does have with Ruffalo are electric. Saldana infuses the right amount of emotion into each and shows why Maggie does not just walk away from such a complicated man. Maggie is a strong character in her own right as a woman who decides reject gender roles and take her life into her own hands, but the film suffers when it tries to also shine a light on the issue of feminism in the 1970s.
This is a subject that should be talked about, but within the context of Infinitely Polar Bear it feels less focused and starts to overshadow Cameron’s struggle, which has been the center of the film up to this point. Maggie’s choice and how her plan is challenged thanks to the bias against women in the workplace at that time is compelling, but when the film starts to show this side of Maggie’s life (away from her family) the narrative feels like it gets off step. The Stuart’s are a strong and unflappable four-some and the film works best showing how they interact with (and react to) each other rather than focusing on the outside issues affecting them.
Infinitely Polar Bear could have been an overwrought story of what it is like to grow up in a fractured household with a slightly unstable parent, but Forbes and her cast make the wise choice to focus on the characters themselves rather than the unusual situation they find themselves in. The fight about chores and how to spend their days like any normal family – this one just happens to have a father who is bipolar.
The Upside: Immersive performance from Ruffalo; strong supporting performances from Saldana, Wolodarksy, and Aufderheide; unflinchingly honest narrative focuses on characters, not disease; well curated costumes and music help subtely ground the film in 1970s
The Downside: Narrative loses focus when trying to tackle additional issues
On the Side: Forbes own father was bipolar and the narrative is a loosely autobiographical story of her upbringing with her father while her mother pursued her graduate degree