“Our Dad is totally polar bear” says Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) to her friends of her father, played by Mark Ruffalo. She of course means, bi-polar, but this little exchange is a perfect example of the warmth and humour which Infinitely Polar Bear employs to explore serious issues such as mental illness, race, working mothers and poverty. Review after the jump.
Maggie (Zoe Saldana) and Cam (Mark Ruffalo) have a loving, but volatile relationship. Cam is a diagnosed manic-depressive, and while his love for his wife and two daughters is undeniable, he can’t always keep an even keel. After a particularly frightening manic episode, Maggie leaves Cam and moves the family to Boston. Cam is forced to live in temporary single accommodation. Despite Cam’s wealthy family and Maggie’s infallible work ethic, the family struggles to make ends meet.
When Maggie is offered a full scholarship to study business at Columbia, she is elated – this is their ticket out of poverty. However, this means leaving Faith and Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) in the full-time care of her father. Maggie and Cam decide to take the leap, and through his extreme highs and extreme lows, he cares for the girls while Maggie works hard to secure them a better future.
The directorial début from Maya Forbes, Infinitely Polar Bear is inspired by personal experience and told in such a delicate, loving way, that is obvious Forbes is writing from the heart. While some may say this film is “bi polar lite”, I would argue that it’s a film that focuses on its characters, and that Cam’s mental illness is just one [very important] part of that. It shows the lows and, at times, alarming personal toll it takes on his family, but also explores the beautiful highs and the special moments where his extreme behavior is joyous, even comical. Managing to walk the line between sweet and sad on such a serious topic is something to be admired.
While Cam is the heart and soul of this film, Maggie is its strength. She is determined to make a better life for her family, and against serious diversity, she works hard to get ahead. This was at a time where women, mothers and minority groups faced many hurdles to getting into the workplace. Maggie is all three of these, yet she is unwilling to let society beat her. Cam’s own family dismiss her ambitions and even neighbours feel they are entitled to comment, with one saying to Cam, ““Most men would be completely emasculated by their wife going off to be the breadwinner”. I love that he stands by her and that they are a team, despite his problems and her absences.
The couple are mixed race and while this isn’t mentioned much, I did really like a moment between Maggie and her daughter Faith, when Faith claims she isn’t black because she has lighter skin. “Sweetie, your mother is black. Of course you’re black”, Maggie tells her. Cam and Maggie laugh about this later. This may seem like a throwaway moment, but I think it encapsulates the warmth and acceptance that this film has for its characters. It’s so nice to watch a film which clearly cares about them so much.
Performances by all four key cast members are fantastic, but it is Ruffalo that you will remember. His ability to switch between deliriously happy and uncontrollably angry was quite astounding. He gives the character soul and never overplays scenes, grounding them in real emotion rather than hamming them up with unneeded dramatic flair. The chemistry between him and the wonderful Zoe Saldana is palpable and there isn’t a moment you don’t believe the emotions between them.
The film’s use of folksy/indie rock music and grainy video montages works well and adds a layer of charm to the story.
This is a quietly beautiful film which deftly tells the story of a unique family who are trying to overcome obstacles. It’s funny, smart, filled with warmth and at times, sad. I look forward to seeing what Forbes works on in the future, she has an incredible voice.
By Sam McCosh
Director: Maya Forbes
Writer(s): Maya Forbes
Starring: Zoe Saldana, Mark Ruffalo, Imogene Wolodarsky, Ashley Aufderheide
Runtime: 90 minutes
Release date(s): Australia & New Zealand: March 26 2015