Maya Forbes’ directorial debut, Infinitely Polar Bear, might have been a disaster waiting to happen but, happily, never becomes one because it never gives in to the very real pitfalls inherent in stories about the mentally ill. Perhaps the key to this is that it’s less about mental illness than about the person with the illness — and his impact (both good and bad) on his family. It is certainly a topic Forbes knows well: Infinitely Polar Bear is a fictionalized autobiographical work — mostly set in 1978 — about growing up with a bi-polar father. But I think why it works has more to do — when all is said and done — with the fact that it stops short of the tendency to romanticize the illness as most films of this sort tend to do. Oh, there’s a certain amount of it, but every time the film gets perilously close, it sidesteps the trap. Moreover, it paints her father’s condition matter-of-factly as something that’s dealt with on a day-to-day basis.
Mark Ruffalo stars as Cam Stuart, the father in question, which works in the film’s immediate favor because of the actor’s innate likability. It also works because Ruffalo is quite capable of handling the darker aspects of the character. The film is quick to establish Cam as troubled but impossibly endearing, but it’s just as quick to establish that this is far from the entire story. The film isn’t many minutes old before his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) is packing the kids — Amelia (Imogene Wollodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) — and her baggage in the car and making a panicked getaway from Cam, suggesting that not only is he difficult to live with, but possibly potentially dangerous. Whether the danger is physical or psychologically manipulative goes unanswered. Both seem possible. We see Cam’s rages, though they never seem threatening. We see his manipulations — right up to the end — and those are very threatening.
Cam isn’t just bi-polar. You sense that he’d be eccentric under any circumstances. Moreover, he’s from a wealthy family, and though he hasn’t direct access to any of the family money — something he doesn’t quite explain — his grasp on reality is that of a privileged person. That he can’t hold a job and that there’s not enough money have only the slightest impacts on him. As a result, he has trouble understanding semi-estranged Maggie’s desire to get her M.B.A. and better her lot in life — at least until Maggie (who is black) points out that, while poverty for white people can be a chic affectation, the rules are different for black people. The upshot of all this is that Maggie opts to go to New York to get her degree, leaving Cam in charge of the kids, but promising to come home on the weekends.
This premise — which plays better than it sounds — could have easily become predictable sitcom stuff. There’s a hint of it in the scenes where Cam is in his upbeat manic state, but that’s undercut at every turn by both his down swings and the fact that, in whatever state, Cam can be an embarrassment — even more so than the average parent. He tries too hard at everything. His attempts at being neighborly are disastrous. His attempts at being a great dad often fare no better. That he drinks heavily and chain smokes Lucky Strikes only makes things worse. But underneath all this, there’s a sadness in the fact that Cam nurses a dream of having a whole family again, yet clearly knows it probably won’t happen.
Infinitely Polar Bear isn’t perfect, but it’s very good. It’s also a tricky film in that it only really works when all the parts fit together. By this I mean that I found it hard to judge until the film ended. Up till then, I waffled back and forth as to whether or not I even liked it. But the film’s final scene — brilliantly backed by George Harrison’s “Run of the Mill,” the lyrics of which almost might have been written for the film — pulls it all together. Obviously, I’m not going to describe it here, but I will say that it’s both wonderful and heartbreaking. Rated R for language.