Infinitely Polar Bear earned my attention with two simple words: Mark Ruffalo. I signed up for a screening without even glancing at the plot synopsis. So, it was a bit of a shock when I finally did, and realized this story was going to hit home for me. And I’m sure it will for many people.
Ruffalo (a force of nature here) stars as Cameron Stuart, a husband and father of two who is struggling with bipolar disorder in 1978 Boston. We meet Cam in a manic swing, as he leads his two young (and skeptical) daughters on an abrupt school day adventure. He proclaims he’s been fired, but seems exhilarated, eyes radiant with life, a cigarette in his crooked grin emitting plumes of smoke that make him seem all the more a runaway train of charm. But soon comes the downside, where he’s breaking down in a bikini bottom as his wife (Zoe Saldana in a role worthy of her drama chops) and kids tremble inside a locked car, keeping a safe distance.
It’s a first act that efficiently sets up the world of the Stuarts, while never judging any of them for their reactions and emotions. Remarkably, Infinitely Polar Bear shares focus between this foursome, carefully sculpting complex characters dealing with all too common issues, including mental health, family disputes, financial drama, and sexism. When mama Maggie can’t get work (and Cam’s too unstable to keep work), she makes the tough choice to go to New York to get her MBA. But to do it, she must leave Amelia and Faith with their father for 18 months. It’s an unusual thing to ask a man at this time. Moreover, it’s a challenge neither parent is sure Cam can meet. Yet both are hopeful.
This movie is just remarkable.
It feels intimate thanks to an ensemble that tackles each wave of the narrative with intensity and vulnerability. Saldana and Ruffalo’s chemistry is electric, whether they are flirting or fighting. And their interactions with child actors Imogene Wolodarsky (who shoulders the film’s heaviest moments with a commanding confidence) and Ashley Aufderheide (feisty and adorable) feel so natural that it seems like we’re spying on a real family. And in a way we are.
Infinitely Polar Bear was written and directed by Maya Forbes, who based its narrative on her own childhood, and who cast her own daughter (Wolodarsky) in the role of her onscreen doppelganger. Making a film this personal can go one of two ways. One, you make a vanity project that makes a saint out of you while vilifying everyone else. But Forbes favored the latter, using the film as a chance to truly understand the perspectives of her father, mother and sister during this turbulent time. She lets us into a private space, and welcomes us to poke around. And in doing so, the audience is exposed to bipolar disorder minus its hysterical Hollywood trappings.
In this respect, Infinitely Polar Bear reminded me of Still Alice. Where the latter film invited audiences into the experience of Alzheimer’s from the point of view of its victims and those who love them, the former does the same for bipolar disorder. And as someone who’s seen a close friend struggle with a lot of the issues presented in the film, I was awe-struck by its earnestness and authenticity.
The filmmaking is beautiful for its emotional intelligence, smooth in its pacing, warm in its humor and tone, and powerful in its performances. But never is it showy. Watching it, you feel like you’ve been entrusted with a secret, not one hidden for shame, but for love. Ultimately, it feels like an honor to watch Infinitely Polar Bear, and to be trusted with its story and message.