An Ode to Papa Bear

Infinitely Polar Bear
(USA, 88 min.)
Written and directed by Maya Forbes
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Imogene Wolodarsky, Ashley Aufderheide
Imogene Wolodarsky as Amelia , Mark Ruffalo as Cam and Ashley Aufderheide as Faith .
Photo by Seacia Pavao; SPC/Mongrel

Polar bears, like people, growl when their angry. Cubs can probably tell that Papa Bear doesn’t want to play if he lets out a low grumble, but other cubs might not know when their dad is play fighting if he’s growling at different octaves and levels all the time. A happy growl differs from a mad growl, but they’re growls just the same. It takes a keen cub to learn and understand her father’s growls and writer/director Maya Forbes does just that in her directorial debut Infinitely Polar Bear, which draws upon the filmmaker’s own experience growing up with her bipolar father in Boston while her mom went to school in New York. This layered and observant comedy/drama is a lovely ode to Papa Bear as Forbes guides her onscreen family through a tumultuous coming of age story for them all.

Infinitely Polar Bear, which gets its title from the inability of the family’s youngest daughter to define her father’s illness, stars Mark Ruffalo in a charismatic and empathetic performance as Cam, the bipolar patriarch of the Stuart family circa his 1967 breakdown. Cam fluctuates under the label of a manic-depressive while a better understanding of his illness develops in the psychiatric community, and his family undergoes a similar oscillation as their mom, Maggie (Zoe Saldana), works tirelessly to keep the family together and floating on the poverty line. Infinitely Polar Bear is a tough watch as Cam and Maggie and their two girls, Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide), ride the roller coaster of Cam’s illness and learn to build a family again by taking both the highs and lows in stride.

The film’s depiction of mental illness feels both realistic and refreshing as Maggie goes off to school and puts Cam in charge of raising the two girls on his own. Few dads hang machetes on the walls and let kids eat toast with samurai swords, or use baking sheets as makeshift floorboards in cars, yet Infinitely Polar Bear somehow normalizes Cam’s behaviour by conveying it with just the right inflection of suspenseful humour. The film doesn’t judge him or his capacity to care for the girls.

 Growing up isn’t easy when one’s dad veers from manic states into angry bursts of rage, yet Amelia and Faith adapt quickly to Cam’s illness. His quirks and symptoms, like turning the apartment into a messy explosion of half-finished odd jobs or wearing bizarre outfits (some two at a time), become signals that they learn to interpret and understand. They’re too young to go into the wild on their own and Forbes shows how these girls and their father work together to create a functional family that reads the signs of mental illness and creates an open, understanding environment.

Ruffalo gives one of his stronger performances as Cam. Playing the part of the bipolar papa who hails from Boston’s upper crust, his Cam’s a bit of an overaggressive dandy—an affluent eccentric who wears bowties and speaks with perfect diction, but also trounces about in two coats with no pants while threatening to smash the face of anyone who irks him. Ruffalo never overdoes either the manic or the depressive shifts in Cam’s behaviour, and instead creates a believable and sympathetic man who earnestly wants to be a good father, but can turn on a dime and put his children at risk.

Infinitely Polar Bear favours the positive aspects of how Cam’s illness shapes the family and teaches the girls to grow and become independent, and perhaps the film would be even more compelling if Forbes took a few of Cam’s manic episodes into darker territory (but his initial breakdown is unsettling enough), but the director reflects upon the father with warmth and compassion. It’s a film about silver linings, not anger. Similarly, the film gives an affectionate nod to Maggie and shows that strength sometimes surprises us by encouraging one to leave a bad situation. The film emphasizes how hard the mother works for the family despite her physical absence and Saldana’s lovely supporting turn (like Ruffalo, she gives some of her better work in Infinitely Polar Bear) adds to the beautifully bittersweet dynamic of this family. As the two girls, Wolodarsky (Forbes’ own daughter) is the heart of the movie, while Aufderheide brings scene-stealing sassiness as the Stuarts’ youngest.

Infinitely Polar Bear doesn’t follow the pattern of movies that shift audiences between tears and laughter as Cam’s manic depressiveness pulls them together. Forbes instead puts the family on tiptoes and intertwines both the humour and the heartache to show how one emotion is inseparable from the other and feeds its counterpart in turn. Infinitely Polar Bear leaves one unsure whether to laugh or to cry, probably a lot like how the girls feel in their funky apartment, and the refreshing mix of emotions is like honey to a bear.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Infinitely Polar Bear screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne until Friday, July 24.
It moves to TheMayfair beginning Friday, July 24.