Intimate yet expansive, clear-eyed yet deeply personal, “Infinitely Polar Bear” marks an irresistible feature debut for writer-director Maya Forbes. Drawing on a tough but rewarding chapter of her own childhood, during which she and her sister were raised by their bipolar father while their mother went to grad school, Forbes brings a marvelous warmth and specificity to this story of a mixed-race family struggling to survive, aided considerably by one of Mark Ruffalo’s richest, most appealing performances. Retaining a hand-crafted feel even as it develops into a unique snapshot of evolving family dynamics and social expectations in late-’70s America, this assured crowdpleaser looks like an early candidate for Sundance-breakout status.
While Forbes divides the story among all four members of the unconventional Stuart clan, it’s perhaps her most empathetic gesture that she places the viewer’s primary point of identification with the family’s most problematic individual. That would be Cam (Ruffalo), a blue-blooded New Englander who, as revealed in a lovely prologue consisting of Super 8 home movie footage, was officially diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder in 1967. His African-American girlfriend, Maggie (Zoe Saldana), married him regardless, partly because it was the ’60s and mental health was all relative anyway. Fast-forward a decade to 1978: Cam is now a boisterous, outgoing father to their two young daughters, Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide), but a less-than-reliable and increasingly unpredictable husband to Maggie.
Unable to hold down a job, Cam suffers a devastating nervous breakdown and winds up in a mental hospital; Maggie is forced to give up their countryside manse and move with the girls into a small apartment in Boston, where she struggles to provide for them. (For reasons not disclosed until later, no support is forthcoming from Cam’s wealthy family; any relatives on Maggie’s side go unseen and unmentioned.) But as Cam takes his meds and steadily recovers, Maggie proposes a plan: Having been recently accepted into Columbia’s MBA program, she’ll move to New York and earn her degree in 18 months, during which Cam will look after the girls full-time. It’s a terrifying idea for both parents, but just crazy enough (so to speak) to work.
There are perhaps one or two early warning signs — the red speedo and bandana in which Cam enacts his over-the-top breakdown, a borderline-Wes Anderson quality to the film’s fastidiously bright-hued visuals — that “Infinitely Polar Bear” (the title comes from Forbes’ father’s own joking description of his bipolar disorder) will merely trivialize the reality of mental illness by milking it for all manner of cutesy eccentricity. But while there’s no shortage of hilarity in Forbes’ episodic script, it always seems to well up from a place of authentic, deep-rooted feeling, even as it remains firmly grounded in the mundane rhythms of the Stuarts’ impoverished everyday existence.
The result is the sort of sweetly immersive slice-of-life storytelling that, as it unfolds over several consecutive seasons, finds humor and conflict in simple daily activities: Cam rushing to get the girls to school on time; struggling with household chores; trying to patch a hole in his car’s backseat; and, in one delightful sequence, staying up all night to sew Faith a flamenco dress for her school talent show. As for the girls, whose natural smarts and strong, argumentative personalities suggest they’ve inherited their dad’s genes in more stable form, they waver between delight at Cam’s occasional breakthroughs and embarrassment at his unpredictable flare-ups — or, worse, the aggressive friendliness he routinely displays to their often scared-looking neighbors.
Fortunately, as embodied by Ruffalo with a bracing combination of belligerence, restraint, outright silliness and a peculiar sort of grace, Cam is a satisfyingly complex creation who comes off as far more than the sum of his erratic behaviors. There is, to be sure, his manic/angry side: He treats Amelia and Faith more like adults than preadolescent girls, dropping F-bombs in their presence and occasionally storming out of the apartment for a late-night drink (“If a rapist knocks, don’t let him in!”). But over the course of the picture, a more nuanced study emerges of this skilled handyman and passionate outdoorsman, a man with a proud citizen-of-the-world mentality who’s liberal enough to disdain the idea of a proper education, despite having been very well educated himself.
But as Maggie sharply reminds him at one point, that sort of thinking is exclusively a white man’s luxury, and lousy schooling and subpar living conditions are hardly going to help their daughters move forward in the world (even if Amelia bears enough of a resemblance to her dad that she announces at one point, “I don’t think I’m black”). The discriminatory mores of the era are at times a bit too nudgingly handled, as when Maggie has a hard time getting a job in Boston due to her status as a wife and mother, but all in all, the film paints a singular, unself-conscious portrait of a family forced by necessity to upend every expectation imaginable at the time.
Saldana capably conveys Maggie’s strength, selflessness and initiative, as well as her bittersweet sense of loss when she realizes her plan has worked better than she had perhaps anticipated. She and Cam have an especially piercing exchange that cuts to the heart of the major sacrifices that parenthood requires, though the film also affords them a few wonderfully romantic interludes in which Cam playfully attempts to seduce his wife, despite her insistence that they avoid intimacy for the time being. Mercifully directed to avoid any cloying precocity, Wolodarsky (daughter of Forbes and producer Wally Wolodarsky) and Aufderheide show plenty of vigor and spirit as the young Stuart girls — and, among other things, are featured in a priceless homage to one of the all-time great movies about mentally disturbed fatherhood.
A longtime TV producer-writer (“The Larry Sanders Show”) whose bigscreen scripting credits include “Monsters vs. Aliens” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days,” Forbes has assembled a thoroughly pro production package here. Bobby Bukowski’s fluid, handheld HD lensing is polished without sacrificing energy or stylistic flair, favoring a multitude of angles from which to observe the cramped interiors of the Stuarts’ apartment (lovingly decorated by production designer Carl Sprague). Michael R. Miller’s skillful editing finds an absorbing throughline despite the lack of a traditional narrative thrust, and although much of the film consists of montages set to guitar tracks, these feel less like dramatic shortcuts than a vivid approximation of the textures of domestic life.