Comedy Drama

'Infinitely Polar Bear' Film Review: A funny, heartwarming and unconventional look at mental illness and family dysfunction

July 3, 2015Ben MK

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Zoe Saldana and Mark Ruffalo play a Guardian of the Galaxy and an Avenger, respectively; but in Infinitely Polar Bear, the quirky, semi-autobiographical debut feature from writer/director Maya Forbes, they're heroes of a more down-to-earth variety.

Set in 1978 Boston, Ruffalo and Saldana play Cam and Maggie Stuart, parents to two precocious and headstrong young daughters, Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide), who are just trying to make ends meet. It's far from easy, however, because though he often means well, Cam's lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder (or "polar bear," as Faith calls it) has made it impossible for him to hold down a job, leaving Maggie with no other alternative but to take it upon herself to provide for their family.

When she's accepted into an 18-month MBA program at Columbia Univesrity in New York City, Maggie is faced with the predicament of what to do with Amelia and Faith. Unable to afford anything more than a small studio apartment for herself, she certainly can't take them with her; so she and Cam come to a reluctant agreement. Even though he's still recovering from a recent nervous breakdown, Cam will care for their two daughters for the next year and a half. Besides, his doctor thinks having a little routine in his life will do him good.

For the most part, the rest of the film follows Cam and his daughters' trials and tribulations as they try and survive life without mom, and with one another. At first, all three of them have a hard time coping; Cam is a manic wreck who can barely look after himself, let alone his children, while Faith and Amelia are often embarrassed by their dad and his behavior, especially his messy apartment and his penchant for engaging strangers in bouts of unwanted conversation. But as the seasons wear on, we see father and daughters slowly growing closer.

The result is a film that deals with the serious topics of mental illness and family dysfunction, but it does so in a way that's neither depressing nor overly melodramatic. On the contrary, Forbes — drawing from the experiences of her own upbringing — approaches the subject matter from an affectionately whimsical perspective, infusing the narrative with lighthearted humor and a welcome sense of levity that, in turn, goes a long way in smoothing out the rougher edges of the story's darker emotional truths.

Her script also treats the characters of Cam and Maggie — who were molded after Forbes' own parents — with equal amounts of compassion, making it easy for audiences to empathize with both of them. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Ruffalo and Saldana are both excellent in their roles as well. Neither of them is "the bad guy" in the relationship, and the film benefits from the tender moments that arise out of the couple's sincere efforts to find their footing as husband and wife.

Ultimately though, the movie's strong suit is its depiction of the heartwarming bond that develops between Cam and his daughters: how he learns to overcome his disability and become a better dad in spite of himself; how they learn to appreciate him, warts and all; and how they all learn to love and take care of one another. It's poignant, uplifting, and, yes, perhaps in some ways it even oversimplifies the family's hardships. But then again, life's already complicated enough as it is.

Infinitely Polar Bear releases July 3rd, 2015 from Mongrel Media. The film has an MPAA rating of R for language. Its runtime is 1 Hr. 30 Mins.

* Reviewer's note: Portions of this film review were adapted from my TIFF review of the film, published on September 11th, 2014.

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