(Don’t ask me about the title, because I don’t know.)
“Infinitely Polar Bear” is writer/director Maya Forbes’ semi-autobiographical account of her challenging childhood. It’s less about the kids, though, than an adoring portrait of parents seen from a distance of years, when all the heartache and anger has faded and the love shines through the memories like summer sun at twilight.
Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana play the parents. It’s 1978 and their interracial marriage has nudged them to the fringes of polite society in Boston. They’re not quite outcasts, but it’s hard for Maggie (Saldana) to get a good job and Cameron (Ruffalo) is the black sheep of his well-to-do family.
Also, Cam is a manic-depressive whose high highs and low lows tend to render a normal family life difficult. An educated guy who can’t keep a job, he mostly just putters around, shooting photographs and video, fixing things that are broken, and acquiring broken things that he intends to fix.
Imogene Wolodarsky (Forbes’ real-life daughter) and Ashley Aufderheide play their children, strong-willed kids of about 14 and 10, respectively, who are left to craft their own little support system to replace the missing pieces of the primary one.
As the story opens, Cam has gone on one of his bipolar sprees and is just coming out of a psychiatric hospital and seguing into normalcy. Maggie has to be the strong, stern one, insisting that they maintain separate apartments and lives as he recovers.
But then Maggie is presented with an opportunity to get her M.B.A. from Columbia University. It means 18 months in New York, so Cam will have to take care of the girls by himself. It will give him structure and a sense of importance. Then she can return to them, get a better job and hopefully the family can reassemble itself.
The relationship between Cam and the girls is affectionate but complicated. They’re embarrassed to death by their dad, who has a tendency to do things like forget to wear pants, and don’t want their friends to see the detritus-filled “hellhole” of their apartment. Cam will occasionally clean up his act, clean up their home, everything seems great, and then their momentum will just sort of… fade.
Maggie returns regularly on weekends, checking in while feeling remorseful about having checked out, even if it’s temporary and for the greater good. Cam is needy, resentful, proud, and desperately wants to resume their romantic relationship. Wisely, she sidesteps him.
Ruffalo gives a masterful performance, with precise little movements and mannerisms contrasted with wild ravings and thoughts. He puffs cigarettes madly, buys and sells jalopies every couple of months, loves his family the same way he does everything else: with total abandon. He doesn’t give any big “Oscar clip” speeches because Cam couldn’t concentrate on anything long enough to summon up a soliloquy.
Saldana has a challenging part, too, in what is essentially the Meryl Streep role from “Kramer vs. Kramer.” In this case, though, the mother doesn’t simply disappear but steps aside for a combination of altruistic and personal reasons. We witness her anguish and guilt, and appreciate it.
This is the first film directed by Forbes, a veteran screenwriter and television producer. She’s clearly got a future behind the camera. “Infinitely Polar Bear” is a highly personal story with a universal theme: parents don’t just raise children; the kids participate in the parents’ own growth, too.