Bipolar bear with cubs
An adventurous if imperfect drama of a family in crises
Infinitely Polar Bear has special appeal in a number of respects: a charmingly paradoxical performance from Mark Ruffalo, some challenging subject matter (a mixed-race family, mental illness, social prejudice, etc.), role reversals in a deeply troubled marriage, some sharply observed glimpses of patrician New England in decline, a quirky comedy/drama with wildly varied touches of sitcom on the one hand and psychodrama on the other.
I mention all that at the outset because I like this decidedly imperfect film for the small victories of its freewheeling adventurousness and because the stock descriptions of this movie (“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,” according to imdb.com) sound so discouraging.
That IMDb plot summary is accurate enough, up to a point, but its cool objectivity seems a little cold-hearted, especially when held alongside the movie itself, which in a way is all heart and little else. I give the movie points for its free- spirited generosity and its willingness to take chances and for somehow remaining a lively and engaging enterprise even as some of its best possibilities stumble or come to naught.
Perhaps the key element of this movie is that it is writer-director Maya Forbes’ fictionalized account of her own family’s struggles. Cam Stuart (Ruffalo) and Maggie Stuart (Zoe Soldana) are based on her own parents, while Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky, the director’s own daughter) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) are based on Forbes and her younger sister China (who has gained some real-life fame as a lead singer with Pink Martini).
Because of all those family connections, Infinitely Polar Bear is perhaps best seen as an offbeat sort of memoir powered in part by a daringly brash sentimentality. Her family’s story may sound ripe for some kind of scenery-chewing soap opera, but what Forbes gives us instead is a set of memory visions, some stark, some almost idyllic, and all (more or less) from the kids’ point of view.
What comes with that is a greater emphasis on the energies of survival, as individuals and as a family, than on the small multitude of conflicts that very nearly drives them irrevocably apart. And so I’d say the film is more impressionistic than realistic, more an expression of love than a tell-all exposé, let alone a family tragedy.
But don’t let me make this sound better than it really is. Ruffalo’s rough-and-tender performance and the centrality of the daughters’ much-tested relationship with their father leave the movie with a glaring imbalance. It’s a four-character story, and we really ought to know more about how Maggie, Amelia and Faith navigated all those crises, large and small. And the full story of that extraordinarily durable marriage, Cam and Maggie, cries out for a fuller telling as well.