By Karen Yuan, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 2, 2014
“Infinitely Polar Bear” is a deeply personal movie – not really in the way when someone whispers a secret in our ears, but more in the way we stumble upon their stash of VHS home videos, each marked with a cryptic yet relatable white label – when dad took us fishing, when mom left for NYC, Faith’s mermaid dress, the night we cried together.
Infinitely Polar Bear
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The film is director Maya Forbes’ feature debut and based on her childhood with a bipolar father.
Maggie Stuart (Zoe Saldana, “Star Trek: Into Darkness”), determined to lift her family out of poverty, leaves for graduate school in New York City and appoints her husband Cameron (Mark Ruffalo, “The Kids Are Alright”) to look after their two children, Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide), in their Boston apartment. But there’s one little thing: Cam is manic-depressive, at one moment rabid in a red Speedo streaking across the yard and another moment quietly cutting kiwis into flower shapes for a flu-ridden daughter. So why the hell did Maggie marry him, asks Amelia?
Well, it was the ‘60s. Everyone was having a mental breakdown.
“Infinitely Polar Bear” is fastidiously period-conscious. The film is set in 1978, and at every moment it reminds us with flared pants, race and gender issues and Ruffalo in Day-Glo booty shorts. Despite all the details, the messages still resonate in 2014. Perhaps it’s the gender issues, still relevant in the 21st century, or the dialogue, which revolves around events in the Stuart microcosm of four and never quite acknowledges other news beyond their little world. The result is, again, an intimate and oddly timeless feeling.
Throughout the movie, Forbes throws in Super 8 home-movie footage, grainy and beautifully handmade, with close-ups of Faith’s laughing face or birds in summer trees. It toes the line but never enters Instagram territory.
Although we’re peering deep into Forbes’ past, the film somehow feels restrained. Wherever a heavy blow could be dealt, instead Forbes introduces a quick and saccharine caress to smooth the scene over. Cam’s manic depression feels watered-down and never as dangerous as the film initially insinuates through Maggie’s concern over leaving the children in his care.
A welcome effect of this is that “Infinitely Polar Bear” doesn’t only follow Cam’s illness. It’s not a mental health PSA. Or rather, it is, but at the same time focuses on a slice-of-life dynamic within a whole family, not just Cam being ‘infinitely polar bear’ – the nickname Forbes’ own father gave to his illness.
The slice-of-life tone may be at the expense of Ruffalo’s incredible acting, however. Ruffalo pulls out all the stops and gives a truly nuanced performance as a loving, yet tormented father. The scenes in which we can visibly see him build up in a volcanic rage are some of his best as an actor. But his intensity is let down by the film’s stubborn domesticity. Mount Ruffalo never erupts. The movie isn’t about his character’s torment – it’s about a happy ending for the Stuarts, which may leave some in the audience confused, since the Stuarts never seemed to completely despair in the first place.