Infinitely Polar Bear

Did any movie released in 2015 have a worse title than the Infinitely Polar Bear? It's certainly evocative: the title suggests that you're in for one of those insufferable comedy/dramas that turn mental disorders or disabilities into something adorable and heartwarming. At its very worst, the film is exactly that, playing the main character's bipolar disorder as something charmingly kooky and underscoring his meltdowns... er, “antics” - with the sort of strained “isn't this quirky and fun!” music that often afflicts such things. At its best, however, the film demonstrates surprising emotional depth and complexity. On a surprisingly regular basis, potentially insufferable moments are rescued by grounded, persuasive performances.

Our tale is set in the late '70s, and centers on the complicated family life of Cameron “Cam” Stuart (Mark Ruffalo, The Avengers), his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana, Avatar) and their children Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide). Cam suffers from bipolar disorder, and eventually suffers a nervous breakdown that leaves him jobless and hospitalized. So, Maggie is forced to enter the workforce (alas, the only work she can find is a thankless, low-paying job) and move the kids into a small, low-rent apartment. Once Cam recovers and moves out on his own, Maggie makes a proposal: she'll go to business school to get her M.B.A. (thus securing a better financial future), and he'll be responsible for taking care of the kids for the next 18 months. It's a risky proposition – there's a chance Cam may not be able to handle the responsibility of dealing with the kids on his own – but it's the only viable option.

This is a deeply personal story for writer/director Maya Forbes, who is essentially recreating her own own childhood here. Her parents were also an interracial couple, her father was also bipolar/manic-depressive and her own daughter is playing the role of Amelia (who is based on Maya). Her personal connection to the material probably explains why there are so many miniscule details that feel precisely right, and why the relationships feel so touchingly nuanced. The film has a lovely, sincere core, which is why it's so frustrating when Forbes gives into the temptation to sugarcoat things and lean on familiar indie drama conventions.

A sizable chunk of the movie focuses on Cam's attempt to cope with the daily routine of taking care of his kids, and much of it is played as gently goofy comedy: Cam uses inappropriate language in front of the girls! Cam impulsively wanders into somebody else's home because he wants to show the girls where one of their dead relatives used to live! Cam forces his way into awkward social interactions with neighbors! None of these things feel particularly unrealistic, but the “ain't this whole bipolar thing quirky?” tone begins to grate after a while. Still, the film does demonstrate some self-awareness with its whimsy, suggesting that Cam has an unfortunate tendency to believe that his eccentricities are considerably more enchanting than they actually are (he refers to his moments of odd, irrational behavior as “escapades,” a term none of his loved ones would use).

The performances are exceptional throughout, particularly when Ruffalo and Saldana are sharing the screen. Their scenes together suggest a long, complicated history, and you can see the unspoken disappointment in their faces: Cam wishes that he were capable of being a better husband, and Maggie feels so torn between her genuine affection for this strange man and her sensible recognition of how dangerously volatile he is. Wolodarsky and Aufderheide do good work, too, particularly the former as a girl who has been burdened with more responsibility than she ought to have to deal with. Both of the girls are biracial, but Amelia has a much lighter complexion than Faith, and people have a tendency to assume that she's white. As a result, she feels uncertain about who she is, which only adds to the overwhelming amount of uncertainty in her life.

Infinitely Polar Bear ultimately veers slightly closer to “gently appealing” than “obnoxiously cloying.” It's slight, lightweight viewing that makes a lot of mistakes in a bid to be broadly appealing, but Forbes' personal touch can be felt throughout, particularly in terms of the character work the film serves up. It's better than the title suggests, but not as rich as it could be have been.

Infinitely Polar Bear

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 88 minutes
Release Year: 2015