Maya Forbes, the writer and director of “Infinitely Polar Bear,” knows all too well it’s a Serious Problem since she and her younger sister grew up with a bipolar dad. But having lived it, she also knows that life with any kind of dad has all sorts of moments — happy, sad, discouraging, alarming, revealing, even tenderhearted.
So she has composed a lovely cinematic poem in shifting tones and moods about Life with Dad the Infinitely Bipolar Bear. She is helped immeasurably by her exec producer and star, Mark Ruffalo, one of our finest actors who gives one of his finest performances as her dad, a.k.a. Cam.
Forbes focuses mostly on an 18-month stretch when Cam for all his challenges attempted to take care of his daughters while their mother rushed to get a business degree in another city. The family survived but sometimes just barely.
When Cam met his wife, Maggie (Zoe Saldana), it was the 1960s and everyone seemed wacky or drugged-out then. So she found his antics endearing. By 1978, with two young daughters and living in the Massachusetts area, Cam’s antics have reached the point of his needing institutionalization. So the family gets broken up.
Maggie and the kids are forced to leave their countryside home — apparently when Cam could hold down a job he made decent money —and move to Cambridge. When released, Cam lives in a separate abode.
They are now extremely poor despite the fact Cam is from a Boston Brahmin family rolling in money. Thus their daughters’ education suffers in a public school since the family cannot afford a private one.
So Maggie hatches a plan. She’ll earn an accelerated degree at Columbia Business School in New York in 18 months while Cam takes care of the daughters full-time in Cambridge. (His mom does find it within her heart to pay for their tiny apartment.)
At this juncture though Forbes hasn’t given her audience enough information about Cam. From what you’ve seen of Cam and his mood swings — the illness was called manic depression in those days — Maggie’s scheme seems highly irresponsible.
She and the girls must know something about dad that you’re not privy to. For he does screw up frequently, abandoning the girls to get drunk, refusing to take his meds, forever smoking around his kids and being so aggressively friendly with neighbors they soon avoid him. Yet everyone survives.
You’re never sure how much danger Cam represents to himself and his daughters. Ruffalo plays him as essentially a good egg who cannot control certain impulses and behavioral quirks.
Maggie still clearly loves him but not as a husband any longer. He seems to have no bedroom privileges on her weekend visits and has no guarantee she will include him in the family’s future plans. Maybe she is unsure herself. Maybe the family actually did improvise their lives to this infinitely-polar-bear degree.
Then too Forbes is writing about her dad. She is writing about how embarrassing it was to have a nut for a dad and how embarrassing it was not to be able to invite friends over to the “shit hole” where she and sis lived.
But she may not have been willing to venture into that darker side of her dad. So, in the end, you don’t really know what to make of her mom’s decision.
But this is still a brave movie on many fronts. Brave for heavy hitters such as Ruffalo and exec producer J.J .Abrams to come aboard to get financing for a movie on a subject usually shunned in cinema.
Brave for Forbes to make this something of a family project with her husband Wally Wolodarsky among the producers and her daughter Imogene Wolodarsky playing her younger self, Amelia.
Brave too for portraying an interracial family without any commentary other than Amelia wondering why she looks so much whiter than her sister Faith (Ashley Aufderheide).
What “Infinitely Polar Bear” accomplishes is a fine portrait of the industrial strength of a real family. These people survive because everyone believes in family and therefore each other. They survive because everyone knows that ultimately he or she can count on the others when the chips are really really down.
Under a first-time director the actors are all spot-on. Ruffalo creates enormous empathy for a character who in other hands might simply annoy you. Ruffalo demonstrates that Cam would’ve been a man of many talents if he had the ability to follow through on initiatives. He is honest, smart, dedicated and loving but … in his own way.
Saldana is beautiful and a rock of strength. She makes you see what originally attracted her to this complex, challenging man but also what now so disturbs her. She is headstrong yet a pushover, brimming with confident yet full of doubt.
Wolodarsky and Aufderheide make you see that, in many ways, their young characters are raising their dad. They are teaching him responsibility and teaching him the meaning of love.
The girls do bring their friends to their shit hole one day because they know how much it means to Cam. Plus their friends are rather charmed by such an eccentric dad.
A longtime TV producer-writer (“The Larry Sanders Show”) whose screenwriting credits include “Monsters vs. Aliens” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days,” Forbes has made a mark for herself now as a filmmaker too.
Long delayed in getting released — the movie debuted at the 2014 Sundance — “Infinitely Polar Bear” is a surprisingly fluid and honest account of how a family operates under all conditions even the most adverse.
Opens: June 19, 2015 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production: Paper Street Films, Park Pictures, Bad Robot, KGB Media
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Imogene Wolodarsky, Ashley Aufderheide, Beth Dixon, Keir Dullea
Director-screenwriter: Maya Forbes
Producers: Wally Wolodarsky, Benji Kohn, Bingo Gubelmann, Sam Bisbee, Galt Niederhoffer
Executive producers: J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Austin Stark. Ruth Mutch, Noah Millman, Mark Ruffalo, Jackie Kelman Bisbee, Danny Rifkin, Tom Valerio, Rick Rifkin
Director of photography: Bobby Bukowski
Production designer: Carl Sprague
Costume designer: Kasia Walicka-Maimone
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Editor: Michael R. Miller
R rating, 87 minutes