When I first finished watching Infinitely Polar Bear by Maya Forbes I chuckled a little bit to myself about how I would best describe it. Accurate? Heart-warming? Sincere? Charming? It’s certainly all of those things and more. It’s quite an impressive debut from first-time director Maya Forbes.
Infinitely Polar Bear is so rich with content. It’s ostensibly a 1970’s period dramedy about Cam Stuart, a father and a husband, played by Mark Ruffalo. He suffers through a manic-depression diagnosis, which his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) knew about when she met him in 1967, but has worsened over the years. It leads to a disturbed winter outburst where Cam tears the distributor cap off the family car so that Maggie can’t drive away with their two girls. Cam & Maggie’s daughters sit in the back seat of the car, watching as the emotional air goes out of the shirtless Cam, and he’s eventually led away.
There’s a period where they visit him in the hospital, where he stumbles out to them, eyes heavy from lithium and chain smoking in the original sense of the term. Sometimes with more than one cigarette in his mouth. It’s tough on him. It’s really tough on Maggie and the girls. They have to move from their pastoral home to a relatively run-down section of Cambridge, MA just to find a place they can afford. And mom has to bring home the bacon while raising two little girls all by herself. It’s a grind.
When Cam is finally well enough to get out, he’s full of life again, which is a good thing and, at times, a challenging thing. Maggie, trying to make a better life for her family, is accepted into an MBA program at Columbia, but it means she’ll have to move to New York. Should she take the girls from Cam? How can she afford it? How will she have time to do her studies and still be a good mom? Should she leave them behind and say ‘I’ll be back in 18 months?” This decision, this sacrifice, was Saldana’s high water mark of the film. God it was hard to watch. Especially that first night away, where Maggie had to hold the line and be strong, knowing there was a better future ahead. It felt honest. It felt real.
So, daughters Amelia and Faith are home with dad, a dad who’s moods flit nearly uncontrollably. They end up parenting him as much as he parents them. Both of the young actresses are wonderful, and the older one was played by Forbes’ real life daughter, Imogene. In a world where we’re often frustrated by seeing young girls who look too polished or jon-benet’d up for their age, Amelia and Faith were a revelation. They look like little girls. They act like little girls. It feels honest.
That’s about the highest praise you can give to a film. It feels honest. The story itself is how Maya Forbes grew up with her younger sister. Incidentally, you may know her younger sister, China, who was the lead singer for the group ‘Pink Martini’ for a long time. This is their story: how their dad, a member of an old-money New England family dealt with mental illness. How difficult it was for a mom to prioritize a career, and the subtle challenges of an interracial marriage in the 1970’s, when so much was about to change. It seems like her family was really on the front edge of those changes.
It’s a lovely film about one family doing the best they can. They rise and fall together. They stand by each other and they ultimately get through the tougher times to celebrate the good ones together. By the end, they really get each other and we feel like we’re part of the family. So much so that it can feel hard to say goodbye. Ruffalo carries the film, but it’s a tribute to all of them - and Forbes’ vision - that they mesh together so well. It’s delightful, and hopefully is the beginning of more from Forbes.
You can watch Infinitely Polar Bear through Amazon.