Movie Review: Infinitely Polar Bear (2014)

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Rating: B/ Filmmaker Maya Forbes’ heart tugging, affectionate autobiographical tale stars Mark Ruffalo as Cam, a perennial screw-up and the manic-depressive father of two little girls, Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) and Amelia ( Imogene Wolodarsky, the filmmaker’s own daughter.) When we first meet Cam, it is the winter of 1978, and he is in the midst of a manic episode, running around in the freezing cold in his skivvies and terrorizing his family, who then lock themselves in the car in fear. Later he is hospitalized and put on heavy medication that makes him shuffle, fat and complacent, around the halls of the mental hospital.

When Cam gets released and placed in a halfway house, he attempts to get his life on track and win his ex and the mother of his children (Zoe Saldana) back. The ex, Maggie, proposes that Cam look after the kids while she goes to New York for grad school, a decision borne of sheer desperation. The family funds are low, Maggie can’t get a job close to home, and the the only solution she can think of is placing the very unreliable Cam in charge of her kids. You really, really have to try to understand her level of desperation to sympathize with her decision, because although Cam is her baby daddy, he’s just not up for the job. He can barely take care of himself, and thus begins the darkly funny, heartbreaking, and infuriating chronicle of daily life in the house of an unfit parent.

The thing is, although there is some seriously bad parenting going on, the movie never condemns Cam or his decisions. He’s pretty much a big kid himself, a happy-go-lucky man-child with wildly fluctuating cycles of moodiness and mania who flips off his own kids, leaves them at home alone at night to go drink and smoke and dance, and begs to hangs out with his children’s friends before that kind of thing was considered pedo. Forbes shows a huge amount of compassion for Cam and his demons, and with Ruffalo’s empathetic performance it’s easy to follow suite.

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Some people might think this movie isn’t in tune with the true horrors of severe Bipolar Disorder, but somehow it balances humor and the anxiety and fear Cam’s unpredictability provokes without seeming precious or schmaltzy. The ending leaves something to be desired, failing to raise the questions the first 2/3’s of the movie have brought up, but mental illness is an uphill battle. You can’t always end it with total recovery or a heartbreaking event like a violent breakdown or a suicide. The acting of the children is good ( Wolodarsky incongruously looks more Pacific Islander or Maori than mixed race, despite being Forbes’ real-life daughter.)

The best thing about Infinitely Polar Bear is that it is balanced. The kids and the father are always at odds, but Forbes’ drama is in tune with both their points of view while showing that as dysfunctional as they are, they’re still a family and a loving one at that. The film’s lack of a real villain and refusal to pass easy and condemning judgement gives it a very authentic vibe.

Saldana’s character is criminally underwritten, but Infinitely Polar Bear is one of the better movies to come along about mental illness in a long while. It’s a movie for everyone who thought their family was a little crazy growing up and was maybe occasionally embarrassed by a parent’s antics. If Faith and Amelia can love and protect their impossible father (the title is derived from Faith’s confusion of the words ‘Bipolar’ and ‘Polar Bear,’) maybe the rest of us can find the courage to forgive our parents for their screw-ups, which for most people will seem minor in comparison. Forbes is a good daughter to have made such a funny, heart wrenching, and profoundly humane testament to her father’s demons. The story she tells is bittersweet and, above all, refreshingly nonjudgmental and devoid of angst or self-pity.

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