The heart and sweetness at the film’s center help Polar Bear subvert the expectations of the average issue-based drama.
At first glance, Infinitely Polar Bear has a lot in common with Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and The Whale, another tragicomic, semi-autobiographical period snapshot of a family divided. Where Baumbach’s tale concerned itself with the neuroses of erudite New Yorkers and the anxious specter of divorce, writer/director Maya Forbes mines her own childhood for the time she and her sister spent cared for by their manic depressive father (Mark Ruffalo). Baumbach’s film had a better balance of awkward humor and troubling pathos, but there’s something so winning about this family’s struggle that it makes up for Polar Bear‘s shortcomings.
Set around 1978, the film follows the 18 months Maggie Stuart (Zoe Saldana) spends going to business school in New York while she leaves her daughters Amelia (Forbes’ daughter Imogene Wolodarsky playing a stand-in for her mother) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) in Boston with their father Cam, freshly “rehabilitated” from a psychotic break. Ruffalo’s Cam is the central figure, but Maggie feels like the real hero. Cam may come from wealth, but Maggie lifts the weight of the family, changing her circumstances to adequately provide her daughters with a better life. Dad’s eccentricity affords him an easier bond with the kids, at least at first. Maggie is forced to be the logical one with her free spirited children more naturally attuned to their father’s wild ways, but once she reluctantly extricates herself from the situation, a new kind of equilibrium forms.
Youthful recollection gives the film a twee, child-like approximation of mental illness. This is most evident in Ruffalo’s performance, at times a baffling cartoon unbecoming of his natural abilities, as though he’s selling an exaggerated impersonation for an audience who might not appreciate the subtlety of his reliably naturalistic style. Cam’s struggle to appear normal seems more like something out of science fiction (an alien learning Earth customs) than your average family drama, but the complex father-daughter relationships are built on a bedrock of love so palpable that the film’s flights of misguided fancy can be forgiven. Once you look past Ruffalo’s cloying decision to talk like an ironic sea captain, his arc settles into a really charming version of ’80s family comedies like Uncle Buck and Mr. Mom.
As much heavy emotional lifting as Ruffalo does in depicting manic depression, the film’s cinematography skillfully creates an intimacy between the audience and this family. The camera gets right in between the characters, crafting spatial relationships somewhere between late period Malick and a really artsy Levi’s commercial. The dramatic shift in camera movements mirrors Ruffalo’s mood swings, best utilized a third into the film when he has a drinking relapse at the fear of having to clean the house. The frame closes around and suffocates Cam when he feels stifled by his surroundings, then opens up for his more carefree sprints. Coupled with muted Instagram filter color schemes, the narrative begins to resemble a photo album come to life, flitting between a celebratory kind of elation at the fun the girls have with Cam and a disturbing frustration that fills the film’s less nostalgic scenes.
Those moments of nostalgia make for great movie trailer fodder, but Polar Bear is more concerned with the tough times. Early in the film, Amelia runs away to visit Cam at his halfway house and says she feels like Lucy visiting Mr. Tumnus. It’s a sweet moment, but it’s immediately followed by a 12-year old telling her father to stop drinking and take his lithium. The children have a precociousness that seems false but grows more honest as the push and pull between parent and child rocks back and forth. The somewhat aimless plot could be damning in a longer film, but this tight run time allows the quirky displays of mirth to play with the thornier ruminations of social norms and mental illness.
Forbes hints at some very interesting racial themes that are smartly sidelined, as giving them more screen time might have overstuffed the story. Amelia and Faith are both biracial, but the older sister doesn’t feel like she’s black; this is a thread Forbes should try to unravel in her next film, perhaps as a companion piece, but here, the class implications between Cam and Maggie’s families makes for a solid B plot. Keir Dullea and Beth Dixon are weirdly adorable as Cam’s ridiculous rich parents, pleasantly drained of the sort of villainy their archetypes tend to typify, but they efficiently note the contrast between Maggie and Cam, with his numerous references to being kicked out of Harvard. As Maggie herself muses, “when black people live in squalor no one’s charmed.”
The heart and sweetness at the film’s center help Polar Bear subvert the expectations of the average issue-based drama. It never lies to the audience about how difficult it is to manage any family, let alone one where mental health complicates even the simplest of matters. There’s a great sequence where Amelia and Faith come home from school to find the apartment cleaned up and made over in time for their mother to visit. After a moment, the camera pans to Cam’s room, where he’s shoved the detritus from the entire process to be dealt with later. It’s a powerful moment of visual honesty. The victories here are small, hard won moments of success, and there is no sunset happily ever after to be had. Nonetheless, the film’s conclusion is satisfying, and the journey there is a worthy one.