In Infinitely Polar Bear, a bipolar father takes care of his two daughters while their mother attends grad school. Writer-director Maya Forbes knows what she's talking about – the same thing happened to her and her sister back in the '70s. In reference to her screenplay she said, "I knew what I wanted to see: a film that was funny, sad, authentic and warm. Warmth was very important to me. I wanted to see a humane film about the effects of mental illness on a family. I wanted to see real, resilient children. I wanted to see a movie about love and the hard choices people have to make every day."
Infinitely Polar Bear (the title comes from how one of the sisters mispronounced the term bipolar) is full of love and challenging moments. The cast is warm and appealing. Maybe too appealing.
It's important to remember that the film reflects Forbes' enormous affection for her family, because Infinitely Polar Bear often suffers from excessive adorableness. Papa Cam is played by Mark Ruffalo (The Avengers, Foxcatcher), who is very good at making extreme characters relatable. Zoe Saldana (Guardians of the Galaxy, Avatar) is elegant and relatable as mama Maggie. Daughters Amelie (Imogene Wolodarsky, Forbes' daughter) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) serve as a juvenile team strong enough to deal with their father's limitations.
The problem is that the family is so charming, attractive and progressive that the painful realities of manic-depression tend to come off instead as the quirks of a non-conformist during the latter days of the counterculture. We see Maggie gather the girls in the car to escape Cam, who is experiencing a breakdown, but when Ruffalo bounds up to the car wearing only a pair of red swim trunks, he seems ... harmless. Why, you wonder, is the rest of the family getting so upset at this overeager puppy dog?
The pain and the danger that can be a part of the disorder are shown in the film, but it's folded in with so much whimsy that it becomes hard to remember that Cam is really and truly ill. The music doesn't help – a solo trumpet or trombone underlines sad moments here and there, but you know that Mungo Jerry or some other musician of his ilk is lurking around the corner, ready to spring into action with an annoyingly peppy or earnest tune. Add in the home movie style montages and the bipolar disorder nearly gets lost in the blur.
As much as I appreciate Mark Ruffalo, It should be noted that his acting here gets surprisingly big. Think Val Kilmer during his character's wired streaks in Real Genius. There are even moments when he sounds a little Robin Williams-ish.
Still, I enjoyed visiting with this family. I appreciate Ruffalo and Saldana. The daughters make a fun two-headed dragon. And there are little moments that stand out – like when one of the girls tells her mother that the kids in school say she isn't really Black. Infinitely Polar Bear suffers from the same problems as many other movies dealing with mental illness. It's essentially a bipolar Wonder Years. But a look back at writer-director Forbes' goals for her film shows that she accomplished what she set out to do.
Opening: Friday at Keystone Art