Mind over family matters

A mental balancing act.

A mental balancing act.

Rated 3.0

A sweet, sensitive and affectionate movie about two girls growing up in a mixed-race household with a manic-depressive father, writer-director Maya Forbes’ Infinitely Polar Bear has been “Rated R for Language” by the Motion Picture Association of America. Of course, even if the mentally unbalanced father played by Mark Ruffalo didn’t swear like a sailor throughout the film, it probably still would have received an R for his nonstop cigarette smoking. After all, the MPAA recently noted that the rating for Mr. Holmes was partially due to “Incidental Smoking,” whatever that is.

If Ruffalo were decapitating people by the thousands and pulling their spines out of their assholes, Infinitely Polar Bear would have easily earned a PG-13 rating, but since Forbes couldn’t make a halfway honest film about her free-spirit father without including his penchants for profanity and tobacco, the inevitable R freed her to make this family memoir as raw and deeply personal as she liked. There’s certainly a palpable sense of warmth and sincerity to the film, but I wish Forbes had wanted to give her audience something a little more substantial than a case of the warm fuzzies.

Infinitely Polar Bear is a family affair in more ways than subject matter—Forbes’ daughter Imogene Wolodarsky stands in for her mother in the lead role of Amelia, the older daughter and narrator. Amelia explains that her parents Cameron (Ruffalo, fantastic) and Maggie (Zoe Saldana, adequate) fell in love in the 1960s, but that her father’s subsequent breakdowns and overall instability drove a wedge in their relationship. They’re separated when the story starts in 1978, with an unemployable Cameron recovering from a mental hospital stay, while Maggie struggles to find a job that will support the family.

When Maggie gets accepted into an MBA program in New York City, she reluctantly leaves the girls with Cameron while she earns her degree. Cameron is the better cook and better nurturer (among many nice touches, the film acknowledges but doesn’t indulge his feelings of emasculation at becoming a homemaker), but he can’t be trusted to provide the structure and stability that the girls crave. Amelia and her little sister Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) are mortified by his lack of social awareness, as well as his hair-trigger temper and drinking problem, and they refuse to invite friends over to his filthy apartment.

To its infinite credit, though, the film never judges Cameron too harshly, even when he replaces his lithium treatment with “small, steady sips of beer all day long,” or when he skips out on the girls to go carousing in a bar. Movies about mental illness tend to shade the symptoms as cute and quirky, and while Forbes occasionally falls into that trap, there are a lot of little moments here that feel honest and earned—a distressed Faith carving a flower into the dinner table because “it looks pretty,” or Cameron cursing out the girls when they chide him for his overbearing and unwelcome helpfulness.

Forbes does a great job creating a realistic and relatable family dynamic, even as everyone outside of the family is subtly and self-righteously portrayed as a bully or a grotesque. Luckily, Ruffalo has a genuine rapport with the girls that paves over some of the holes in the script, and both Wolodarsky and Aufderheide give excellent performances, managing to play precocious without coming across as cloying or coached. They’re almost good enough to forget that neither of these children ages a day over the course of several years.

Best known for working on The Larry Sanders Show and co-writing the script for Monsters vs. Aliens, Forbes makes her directorial debut with Infinitely Polar Bear. No doubt it must have helped to have friends in high places—J.J. Abrams, Ruffalo and Wallace Wolodarsky (Forbes’ spouse and an original writer on The Simpsons) are among a litany of 22 credited producers. With so many cooks, it’s a credit to Forbes that the finished product feels so humane and distinctly personal. If only her life story included more grisly beheadings, it would have been deemed suitable for the entire family.