Infinitely Polar Bear: Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Funny and sympathetic memoir goes easy on the tale's dark side.

Opposite Zoe Saldana, Mark Ruffalo plays a bipolar father trying to care for two children while his wife goes away to school.

A seriocomic portrait of a family coping with one parent's mental illness, Maya Forbes' autobiographical Infinitely Polar Bear shares with many childhood memoirs a slightly rose-tinted view of its subjects. Forbes doesn't shy away from the hazards and embarrassments faced by two young sisters being cared for solely by their bipolar father (played with empathy by Mark Ruffalo), but she feels honor-bound to balance each scary memory with a happy one in ways one mightn't if not writing about parents one loves. By draping those happy scenes in Theodore Shapiro's aggressively cheerful score, she puts a finger on the scales, pushing us into sharing her view of a child-raising plan we might otherwise find fault with. The result is a feel-good picture that is a little less affecting than it might have been, but is entertaining enough that -- especially with Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana as the adult leads -- it stands a fine chance with mainstream moviegoers.

Ruffalo plays Cam, a man of many gifts whose manic-depression (as it's termed when we meet him in the late ’60s) prevents him from achieving much or even holding down a job. Wife Maggie (Saldana) doesn't mind this much when they marry, creating an idyllic home in the Cambridge, Mass., area, but by the time they have elementary-school-age daughters, Cam's behavior grows erratic enough that they separate: He's institutionalized briefly, and when he's released the plan is that he'll live away from the family but see the girls often.

Maggie, unwilling to see her daughters be unchallenged in a public school but unable to pay for a private one, hatches a plan: She scores admission to Columbia Business School, where she can earn a degree in 18 months, then get a job that pays enough to manage private-school tuition. The problem is that Columbia is in New York City. She decides that Cam will care for the girls full-time in Cambridge, and she'll travel home on weekends to help out.

A few assumptions go unquestioned here. Is it worth splitting a family apart for a year and a half in order to send children to an elite school? Was there really not a business program anywhere in the college-stuffed Cambridge area that would admit Maggie, making the split unnecessary?

The one question the film does engage is the wisdom of entrusting young Faith and Amelia to the care of a man fresh from institutionalization. (The children are played by Ashley Aufderheide and Imogene Wolodarsky, a first-time actor who's the daughter of Forbes and husband-producer Wally Wolodarsky.) Cam fails many tests in the early weeks of the arrangement: He leaves the house while the girls are asleep, going out for hours to get drunk; he abandons housekeeping; he's so intent on trying to befriend neighbors in the family's new apartment building that he alienates every resident. His love for the girls is never in doubt, but even after some seeming steps toward responsibility, he's the kind of dad no child-welfare officer would tolerate.

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Ruffalo makes the character sympathetic and believable, more often entertaining in his erratic behavior than troubling; the film needs the laughs his missteps offer. But the home Cam creates is, as his daughters angrily attest, a "shithole" they are ashamed of. The girls see how his pushy gregariousness is making others avoid the family; they beg their mother to return.

But before things get so bad that viewers seriously question Maggie's values, Cam has for the most part turned things around: Once-bullying neighbor children are charmed by his eccentricity, and even bouts of depression don't stop the girls from keeping the household running. The world is inarguably home to many families that thrive in conditions others would find outrageous, and from all appearances, Forbes' was one of them. But one suspects the happy ending was a bit harder to come by than Infinitely Polar Bear makes it look.

Production: Paper Street Films, Park Pictures, Bad Robot, KGB Media
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Imogene Wolodarsky, Ashley Aufderheide
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
Editor: Michael R. Miller
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Sales: Jessica Lacy, ICM Partners
No rating, 87 minutes