Review: INFINITELY POLAR BEAR Blows Hot And Cold
Proof that fine actors giving strong performances are not always enough to save a movie, Maya Forbes' Infinitely Polar Bear seems too preoccupied with its 70s period setting and zany family antics to pay more than vague lip service to its central theme of manic depression. As a result, Infinitely Polar Bear is a frivolous and slight affair, not without its charms, but devoid of any real purpose.
Apparently based at least in part on writer-director Maya Forbes' own experiences, Infinitely Polar Bear is the story of an unconventional American family in 1970s Massachusetts. Cameron Stuart (Mark Ruffalo) comes from a wealthy New England family, but was diagnosed in the late 60s with manic depression. His African-American girlfriend Maggie (Zoe Saldana) married him regardless, and fast forward 11 years and the couple have spawned two delightfully wise and precocious daughters, Amelia (Forbes' own daughter Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide).
When Cam gets himself committed, Maggie is forced to move the family to Boston, and in a last ditch effort to secure a job they can all live off, decides to return to college to get her Masters. Cam's doctors feel the responsibility of looking after his daughters might be just the therapy he needs, and the film details their mad-cap, frequently amusing, occasionally dangerous antics, while also following the more troubled relationship between Cam and an absent Maggie.
Forbes shoots much of the film through the nostalgic, rose-tinted lens of a Super 8 camera, as classic pop tracks from the period blast our eardrums. While no doubt these tunes resonate with our off-screen storyteller and evoke powerful personal memories, the combination of dreamy photography and flower-power anthems often feels a little obvious and on-the-nose for the less-invested viewer.
Fortunately, Infinitely Polar Bear boasts four flawless performances from all of its principles. The young debutants, Wolodarsky and Aufderheide, prove particularly impressive as the often displaced, racially confused children forced to do more than their fair share of the heavy lifting when it comes to running a functional family home. Saldana plays the concerned, responsible matriarch with a reassuring dose of heart and soul, making her less the enforcer than lazier writing may have painted her. She loves her family and wants them to stay together, but she must also be the pragmatist, who if pushed, will choose her children first.
It is difficult to think of a single film in which Mark Ruffalo wasn't the best thing onscreen, and again here he is both dedicated and charismatic as the blue-blooded man-child struggling to grasp his familial responsibilities. He sets the tone for much of the film, brimming with boundless energy and enthusiasm in that way only rich eccentrics can - always offering up a fun and impractical alternative to life's necessary routines.
The problem with Infinitely Polar Bear, and the character of Cam Stuart in particular, is that he does not come across as somebody suffering from manic depression, but rather someone suffering, perhaps, from a mild case of autism, Asperger's or some other condition wherein the afflicted individual struggles to behave appropriately in social situations. I could easily tie myself up in knots attempting to label the particular condition that Ruffalo appears to be projecting, and that Forbes has written - but let's face it, I am not a doctor, nor sufficiently au fait with manic depression or any other serious medical condition to avoid getting myself in trouble were I to go any further. Suffice to say the character simply doesn't ring true.
Infinitely Polar Bear has plenty going for it. The film succeeds as a coming of age story, and a nostalgic flashback to a specific time and place in one's childhood. It smartly handles the racial aspects of the family and its somewhat rare dynamics, which even today might demand something by way of an explanation beyond simply "they fell in love". In fact, one of the film's most memorable sequences falls to Ruffalo and his daughters, when his eldest child asks him "Are we black?" While its disparate elements may not always feel convincing - at least within the realms of movie-logic - Forbes is most certainly a filmmaker to watch and it will be interesting to see how she tackles a subject with which she is not quite so intimately attached in the future.