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Infinitely Polar Bear

This review is humbly dedicated to a dear childhood friend of mine who’s been living with depression and bipolar disorder for the past several years. And just last night, my friend made it publicly known that she had been raped a couple of months ago. She promptly went to the authorities and attempted to kill herself soon afterwards. Mercifully, she is still with us and seeking the care she needs. Recovery won’t be easy, of course, but she’s been strong enough to get through so much already and she will most definitely get through this.

It seems strange, asking for all of you to keep a total stranger in your thoughts and prayers. But honestly, mental illness is an elusive thing. Some people have wounds so deep that there’s no way to see them from the outside no matter how close you look.

Anyone you know could be caught in a horrible battle with mental illness, emotional disorders, and/or post-traumatic stress. They could be in denial, they could be unable to cry for help no matter how desperately they want or need it, or maybe they’ve lived with the pain for so long that they’ve learned how to hide it. And it’s a hard thing to watch that from the outside, unable to completely understand the pain they’re going through or how to help them through it. But we still have to keep trying. We have to listen. We have to be there when the time comes, to remind our friends and loved ones that they are more than an illness or a trauma.

To Brianne, and to all those like her, this one’s for you.

The strange title of Infinitely Polar Bear is just a child’s way of saying that someone is extremely bipolar. The story comes to us from writer Maya Forbes, here making her directorial debut, based heavily on her own upbringing with a manic-depressive father. In fact, Forbes’ counterpart in this movie is played by her own young daughter, one Imogene Wolodarsky.

(Side note: It may also bear mentioning that this is technically a Bad Robot picture. I don’t know the story there, but I assume that exec-producers J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk somehow got wind of this project and decided it was worth godfathering.)

Anyway, our story centers around Cam Stuart, played by Mark Ruffalo. He’s the descendant of a great Boston railroad magnate, but the family fortune is under the sole management of Cam’s stingy grandmother, leaving Cam and the rest of his family barely above the poverty line.

At some time in the ’60s, Cam was diagnosed as manic-depressive, following a massive mental breakdown. Though because it was the ’60s and everyone was a little bit nuts back then, nobody cared. So it was that Cam met Maggie (Zoe Saldana), the two fell in love, they got married, and they had two beautiful mixed-race daughters (Amelia and Faith, respectively played by Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide).

Then the ’70s happened, and Cam kept getting worse. After getting fired from his latest job, Cam went through such a catastrophic meltdown that he became a danger to himself and his family. He was sent away to a mental asylum and Maggie became the family’s sole breadwinner. And if you think it’s hard today for a black single mother to support two kids, try and imagine what it was like back in the ’70s, when racial and sexual equality were still relatively new concepts.

Maggie has been forced to take a crappy job that can only afford a run-down Boston apartment and a third-rate public school for her kids. Obviously, something has to change. So Maggie gets accepted for a scholarship to get her MBA in 18 months. At Columbia University. Which means that Maggie has to go and study in New York, leaving her kids in the care of their father. The manic-depressive who’s still getting over a mental break.

At this point, I feel the need to stop and explain something about this family: They love each other. Deeply. They really do. The four of them would love nothing more than to live together as one big happy family. But what they have together is unsustainable. More than that, it’s unhealthy.

Cam would never intentionally do anything to hurt anyone — especially not his family — but he’s not always in control of his thoughts and emotions, so no one can ever really tell what he’d do at any given time. He can barely take care of himself, much less care for anyone else, and it’s not for lack of trying. As for Maggie, she’s in a time and place when women — particularly black women — were expected to stay in the home and away from the workplace. So neither of the parents are in a place to bring in any money, and all four of them HATE that. Faith and Amelia complain about it nonstop, yet Cam and Maggie hate it even more than the kids do because it’s not like any of this is the kids’ fault.

So Cam and Maggie have to try and improve their situation, which means sacrifices have to be made. So they have to spend a lot of time apart while Cam goes through his stay in an asylum and Maggie goes through her schooling and of course there’s no guarantee that anything will go well even after all of this.

The problems are further compounded when Cam does indeed prove incapable of caring for his daughters by himself. His daughters respond in two ways, switching from one to the other as the plot arbitrarily demands. Either they complain about everything, get on their father’s case, and act ashamed of everything he does; or they step up and learn to care for themselves.

The plot to this movie is determined solely by a bipolar man and two capricious grade-school girls. As a direct result, the tone of the overall film and the development arcs of the characters are all wildly inconsistent across the board. They’re all one big loving family in one moment, then we cut directly to a merciless shouting match. There’s no rhyme or reason to connect the two scenes, just the implied passage of time.

That said, Cam does get something of a development arc, advanced by the give-and-take between him and his daughters. Another huge factor is in his interactions with the outside world: He wants to be known as an upstanding member of the community, but his undeniably sincere efforts often have the opposite effect. Cam goes too far in trying to act friendly, talking so much and so loudly that he drives everyone away to the shame of his daughters. Though Cam would be the first one to say that his problems have nothing to do with his daughters and they have nothing to be ashamed of. Moreover, Cam may not operate in sync with everyone else’s reality, but what of it? In everyone else’s reality, they’re broke and living in squalor. If Cam lives in some unorthodox world, doing whatever he wants and anything he can to cheer everyone up, why not join him?

…Oh, right: Because people still need money and food in the real world.

This brings me to one of the core factors about this movie: For better or worse, it was very clearly made as a tribute to someone’s father. The whole film does so much to show us what it’s like living and growing up in a dysfunctional home with a bipolar father, but it stops just short of showing us what it’s like to really be bipolar. The inside of Cam’s head is easily the most enticing and compelling thing about this movie, but the filmmakers simply weren’t equipped to get in there. Though to be fair, it bears repeating that this film takes place in the ’70s — we don’t know very much about mental illness now, and we assuredly knew even less back then. Even so, its such a wasted opportunity.

Moreover, if the movie fails to really delve into living with bipolar disorder, it’s not for lack of trying on the actor’s part. Ruffalo is brimming with energy through every moment of screen time, going through this film like a force of nature. The guy can go from sweet to destructive with such subtlety that it’s hard to spot the transition or if the character even knew the transition was there. And to address the big green elephant in the room: yes, I’m perfectly aware that we’re talking about the same guy who plays the Hulk.

Zoe Saldana also deserves a ton of credit, playing the sole level-headed character in the entire main cast. Her character the easiest to follow in terms of plot and development, yet the character is full of so many conflicting emotions that she’s fascinating to watch. Maggie loves her husband, but she’s afraid of his condition and what it could lead to. She loves her kids, which is why it breaks her heart to spend so much time away for their benefit. She’s proud of who she is, even if her race, gender, and status as a mother are all barriers to her success. Her life is hardly perfect, yet she keeps on fighting to protect what she has. Saldana once again turns in a splendid performance as a worthy female role model, and it’s always a pleasure to see.

As for the kids themselves, they do a serviceable job of holding the screen. It helps that they’re acting off of champs like Ruffalo and Saldana, but the young actors are held back at every turn by the inconsistent and often unsympathetic portrayals of their characters. I mean, I get that the girls are living with a mentally unstable father, and that in itself would be perfectly sympathetic. But when they act like brats for no decent reason, what am I supposed to do with that?

Everything about Infinitely Polar Bear adds up to a deeply sincere and personal film made by an inexperienced filmmaker. The pacing, plotting, and character development all vary wildly from one extreme to another, and the film never quite succeeds at making us feel what hell it must be like to live with bipolar disorder. Then again, the acting and the scripting are both solid enough to make for a charming and poignant movie about a troubled and unconventional yet loving and supportive family.

It’s a sweet movie and a touching movie, but it falls just short of being a good movie. I wish all the best to Maya Forbes going forward and I hope that her next directorial effort is better constructed. This one, however, is not exactly the slam-dunk it should have been with this material and this cast. It’s worth seeing, don’t get me wrong, but it isn’t worth going out of your way for either.

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