'Infinitely Polar Bear'
‘Infinitely Polar Bear’ is about mental illness and the effects that has on a dysfunctional family. By taking on those big themes, the film practically promises to be nauseatingly precious. Somehow, the filmmakers avoid that trap and deliver a wonderful little movie. The secret is pretty simple: They find authenticity through humor. Let’s face it, living with mental illness or a dysfunctional family requires plenty of that to survive.
Mark Ruffalo stars as the beating heart of Maya Forbes’ autobiographical debut film as director. (Her screenwriting credits include ‘The Larry Sanders Show’, ‘The Rocker’, and ‘Monsters vs. Aliens’.) He gets one hell of an introduction in a lovingly shot 8mm home movie sequence showing how the bipolar dad experienced a manic breakdown after losing his job, forcing his wife (Zoe Saldana) to leave with their two daughters (Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide). Ruffalo ends up in a mental institution sedated before eventually getting out and resuming his duties as fun dad, only now just on the weekends. Saldana moves the kids into a cramped Boston apartment, but decides that’s not enough and moves to New York to pursue an MBA. She leaves her daughters under the care of Ruffalo in her absence, and it’s in that weird, wild family space that the bulk of the film takes place.
It’s easy to imagine a version of ‘Infinitely Polar Bear’ that involves long monologues from doctors explaining the traits of Bipolar Disorder and tediously stretched-out emotional arcs as the family learns to love again. Thankfully, that’s not the movie Forbes has made. Her film barely even has a conventional plot, instead unfolding through episodic memories of a turbulent year as an unusual family came together.
Ruffalo’s character is no monster or collection of textbook tics. He’s a genuinely mentally ill, yet thoroughly lovable guy who slingshots constantly through the emotional rollercoaster of his disorder. He might not be fit for a conventional lifestyle, but he’s a loving character through all his highs and lows, and a caring father in his own eccentric way. The performance is one of the actor’s best. It’s big, yet also the only way the character could be played. He’s heartbreaking in one scene and a hilarious bouncing ball of life in the next without the performance ever feeling inconsistent. That’s how the character works, as well as how his particular mental illness manifests itself. Ruffalo nails it.
The film plays out in wild tonal shifts defined by the central character. Scenes can move from hysterically funny to emotionally devastating in a matter of seconds. Even so, there’s never a sense that Maya Forbes is writing in calculated or manipulative ways for effect. That’s just how this story goes. The film has some incredible sequences, like one in which Ruffalo visits a wealthy relative who supports him in tiny bursts, seeking money to send his daughters to private school. The woman refuses, but instead offers a Bentley for him to drive. Though the daughters vastly prefer the luxury vehicle that doesn’t have a single hole in the floor, Ruffalo knows it isn’t a wise choice and he’s a better father for it. The scene says so much about every character and their circumstances that it plays out rich with emotion and deep laughs that hurt. That’s true of the entire movie, which feels fleetingly funny and observational in the moment, but reveals great care and depth when considered in hindsight.
‘Infinitely Polar Bear’ is a striking directorial debut for Forbes. She proves to be an immensely talented writer and also a genuine filmmaker, constantly able to find visual flourishes that elevate the material cinematically without detracting from the character-driven core. She also has a clear knack for getting the best from her actors. Ruffalo of course dominates, yet Saldana delivers the goods in her difficult role as the grounding force to his boundless energy. The two child actors are wonderfully naturalistic as well, even though they ultimately remain observers by design in a story that will shape their lives.
Though Forbes has delivered strong work as a writer before, she was always working for hire or in broader styles of straight comedy that didn’t reveal what a keen observer of tragically funny human behavior she truly is. She could be an intriguing new voice in American filmmaking. However, even if this clearly autobiographical tale is the one movie she has in her with this much weight and emotion behind the humor, at least she made it. There are so many ways in which ‘Infinitely Polar Bear’ could and should have gone wrong that you can’t help but admire all the ways Forbes gets it right.