I’m preparing a list of my favorite movies from last year, as I always do in January, and to that end I’m also catching up on some films that, for whatever reason, I didn’t get a chance to review here on Flicks. This week’s film is Infinitely Polar Bear, which I saw at a multiplex here in town, way back in the summer. It was the only theater showing it. Then, the movie was gone, after only one week. This kind of thing makes me wonder about the mysteries of studio promotion and distribution: which movies get supported, and which ones are abandoned, and why? In any case, the film finally came out on DVD this month.
The story takes place in the late 1970s, and it’s about a dad who is bipolar, or as they called it then, manic depressive. Mark Ruffalo plays Cam Stewart, living in Boston with his wife Maggie, played by Zoe Saldana, and two young daughters, Amelia and Faith. It’s evident that the family has been through a lot already, but after a particularly severe episode, Maggie gets fed up, takes the kids and moves out. Later, however, when she gets accepted into Columbia Business School, she asks Cam to take care of the girls, saying that she’ll help out on the weekends. Now you might expect disaster to ensue at this point, but instead Dad manages to struggle through it and even do a pretty good job, although his daughters get frustrated and impatient with his chaotic habits and limited social skills.
This is the debut feature from writer-director Maya Forbes. The story is autobiographical, based on her experiences with her own father. The title, Infinitely Polar Bear, comes from a verbal mistake by the younger girl when she tries to say “bipolar disorder.” This is not a good title: it’s too hard to remember, and I think that may have hurt its chances to reach an audience. However, this is really not a film about bipolar disorder. It’s a movie about a person—a complex and well-rounded character—who just happens to suffer from bipolar disorder. That’s an important distinction. When you love a parent, you’re not loving a set of symptoms, but a human being who’s important to you.
Mark Ruffalo is the number one reason to see this movie. This is, in my opinion, the finest performance of his career so far. Throughout the wide mood swings and the unpredictable behavior, which in a lesser film might just be an occasion for pain and regret, Ruffalo makes his character’s intelligence and loving kindness shine through strongly. Saldana is excellent too—you can see the mixed impulses of worried concern and strong-willed determination in her performance. The daughters are played by Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide, and they are perfect in their imperfection, like real children.
Forbes’s screenplay favors the manic side of Cam over the depressed one, except for one scene in a psychiatric hospital. I suppose you could consider this a flaw, but the film takes its stand on love and a sense of humor rather than on despair, and this is really Forbes’s point: a mental illness doesn’t have to mean the end of life, for the ill person or that person’s family. Her own happy memories of her father, happy in spite of difficulties, are attested to in this beautiful, heartfelt, life-affirming work.
Infinitely Polar Bear is available on DVD.