August 28 — September 03
Infinitely Polar Bear
Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.
The title is how young Faith Stuart (Ashley Aufderheide) hears the term “bipolar disorder” when it’s used in reference to her manic-depressive father Cam (Mark Ruffalo). It’s a hint of the tone that writer-director Maya Forbes adopts in her lovely feature debut, whose story is based on her own childhood experiences. Faith and her slightly older sister Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky, the director’s real-life daughter) don’t fully understand what Dad’s behavior means, nor the family dynamics that explain why their wealthy grandmother pays their rent but makes no attempt to get her son any psychiatric treatment; or why their mother, Maggie (Zoe Saldana), left Cam to take care of the two daughters while she worked on getting a business degree. Neither do the girls fully understand (in 1978, when the film is set) the social stigma of both mental illness and mixed-race marriage (Cam is white, Maggie African-American). We see the situation through the eyes of these children who are forced to become both parents and children to their disabled father. Classic films like The Spirit of the Beehive and Forbidden Games featured child protagonists dealing with situations beyond their comprehension, negotiating these potential terrors (and very real dangers) through the shield of their own naïveté and imagination. Interestingly, such movies tend to be foreign films; American cinema has more trouble creating child heroes that are believable not only in their limited perceptions of the world but also their resilience, intuition, and optimism. That fact alone makes Infinitely Polar Bear a unique experience and a welcome addition to the small canon of American films that realistically shows what happens when children are confronted by “grown-up” problems and issues. Cam Stuart isn’t an idealized, lovable Hollywood character with psychological problems that turn “on” and “off” as the film demands. As played by Mark Ruffalo in one of his most engaging, magnetic performances, Cam is disturbed and well-meaning, potentially dangerous (mostly to himself), and frustrating to everyone around him. Forbes also slyly suggests that Cam’s personality probably fit in better with the mood of youthful rebellion dominating the late ‘60’s, when he and Maggie fell in love—but in the countercultural hangover after the end of the Vietnam War, Cam’s behavior is more recognizable as real mental illness, not hippie affectation. What seemed wild and outrageous and freedom-loving in his college days isn’t so endearing in 1978, especially when he’s forced to try to meet the responsibilities of a single dad. The performances of the entire cast are first-rate: Saldana has the trickier role of playing a woman whose ability to cope with her husband’s mood swings and erratic behavior has reached its limit; though she loves her daughters, she can’t stay home to take care of them and earn her degree—which in the long term means being able to support the family. Maggie’s not the villain that she would be in other films, though she “deserts” her husband and children. Saldana doesn’t have as much screen time to articulate what it’s like to try to establish a high-paying career as a late ‘70’s African-American woman, but her performance is empathetic and makes viewers understand she’s making the best of a bad situation. Cam, too, is trying to be a good father—even when his illness causes him to make questionable decisions and scare potential friends away. Ruffalo isn’t afraid to show how terrifying Cam’s confused, manic outbursts of anger can be, especially in contrast to his almost child-like friendliness (it’s no wonder his daughters love him, or why his tantrums are so exhausting). Aufderheide and Wolodarsky are very natural, with no trace of typical child-actor mugging or awareness of the camera. Their interactions with Ruffalo and Saldana convey complex family relationships with effortless grace. One of the many honest aspects of the film’s depiction of living with someone with mental illness is how it acknowledges not just the occasional terror but the more frequently occurring sense of social embarrassment and uncertainty when family members don’t know how one of them will act in public from one moment to the next. Cam’s chaotic behavior is steadily exhausting, eventually taking its toll on the little girls (as it has their mom), yet even at his character’s worst, Ruffalo never lets us forget that Cam is in the grip of impulses he can’t control—no matter how much he wants to. The movie’s realism also comes from its episodic, kaleidoscopic structure—like a scrapbook of memories Faith and Amelia have about the time they spent coping with their father’s behavior. Forbes carefully selects each scene and vignette to reflect the ups and downs of Cam’s own condition (and the rollercoaster ride of living with him). Some critics have suggested that Forbes was too selective in telling this very personal story, avoiding some of the darker emotions and traumatic incidents that surely occurred in her own childhood. The film always hints at real pain, but it’s handled with admirable restraint. This isn’t an anguished memoir, and neither is it a rose-colored portrait of adolescence (with a “wacky” dad). It’s a reflection of what most children (and forgiving adults) choose to remember about their own pasts. The sensation of life as a series of unpredictable highs and lows make Infinitely Polar Bear evocative of anybody’s childhood, and the late ‘70’s “Me Generation” setting is perfectly, subtly, re-created. The film doesn’t strive for sentimental tears but don’t be surprised if your eyes don’t mist up by the end of the film, partly out of sympathy for Cam and his children, partly at how delicately written and acted the film has been. The subject matter could so easily have devolved into shallow comedy or feel-good heroics, or been toned down into digestible made-for-TV fare, but Infinitely Polar Bear is a clear-eyed, honest, perceptive drama that looks not just at the challenges faced by people with mental illness but the everyday heartbreak of those who care for them.
(Rated R for profanity and smoking.)
Cinema NewsManhattan Short Presents Film of the Week. Each week the Festival Screens a Past Finalists Award Winning Film Online. Click here to watch the film short of the Week.
Monthly Cinema FlyerDownload Current Flyer as a PDF
Seniors/Students with valid ID: $7
*Please show SAC membership card to receive discount. R or MA rating requires purchase of ticket by parent or guardian of person under 17.