Title: Infinitely Polar Bear
Director: Maya Forbes
Major Players: Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana
Out Of Five: 3.5
Just because a film goes straight to DVD, it doesn’t mean it’s a dud. Infinitely Polar Bear is a case in point. Shown at Sundance and Toronto in 2014, it was released in the US in 2015, earning its star Mark Ruffalo a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, Musical Or Comedy, this year. So what happened in the UK? Nothing. It simply never saw the light of day in British cinemas. Thankfully, and at long last, it’s found its way over here on DVD.
Based on the childhood experiences of the film’s first time director and writer Maya Forbes, it’s set in 1978 and follows the less-than-conventional family life of Cam (Ruffalo), Maggie (Zoe Saldana) and their two young daughters (Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide). Cam is recovering from his second manic breakdown, and the family are struggling to keep their heads above water on the little that Maggie earns at work. When they can no longer pay for the girls’ private school, Maggie makes a decision: to go to business school in New York for 18 months to study for an MBA, which will lead to a better, and better-paid, job. That way the girls can go back to their old school. But, in the meantime, Cam will look after them and, as he’s bipolar, he soon finds himself out of his depth.
Essentially a family drama but with the added dimension of Cam’s illness, the film also takes the opportunity to look at social attitudes of the day. He’s presented in a sympathetic light but not a rose-tinted one. His dramatic mood swings make life difficult for everybody around him, they regularly upset the girls and put an additional strain on Maggie, who has to be his carer as well as his wife. Yet she firmly instructs the girls never to tell anybody about their father’s behaviour. Mental illness is something to be kept inside the family. He is, after all, a loving father, even when he lapses back into not taking his medication and drinking too much, but has to admit eventually that he’s a better father than husband.
By showing the attitudes towards mental health of the late 70s, Forbes is clearly looking to encourage more understanding and tolerance, especially towards bipolar. In 78, the term was only just starting to replace the more formidable phrase “manic depression”. It’s also where the film’s title comes from, with the younger daughter describing her dad as “totally polar bear.”
The film’s opening home move style is one that crops up regularly throughout and it’s a good fit. Cam is a keen photographer, taking shots of just about every moment in his family’s life. Many of the interior scenes are filmed in fly on the wall, as if there were cameras located around the apartment, filming every single second. And it gives the film both an immediacy and a personal feel, reflecting the background to the story.
As Cam, Ruffalo gets another opportunity to extend his scope as an actor, although there seems to be no escape from his superhero persona, Hulk. Both he and Cam have some behavioural traits in common and Cam does seem to wear green rather a lot! The role came before his muscle bound wrestler in Foxcatcher, as well as his restless and relentless investigative journalist in Spotlight, released on Friday, but the three performances together demonstrate range and subtlety. Here, his charm and winning qualities are all but destroyed by his illness and, even when he’s taking his meds and on a more even keel, his behaviour is still slightly disconcerting. He’s unable to draw the line between being friendly and invading other people’s space, so they find him intrusive and shy away. It’s a challenging role, but one that he tackles with skill and humanity.
Infinitely Polar Bear is a warm, compassionate portrait of an unconventional family. Quirky and touching at the same time, it has plenty of gentle humour but always manages to keep its feet firmly on the ground and avoid being smothered in cloying sentiment. And most of that is down to Ruffalo’s star turn. The film has already missed out once in this country. Make sure you give the DVD a try so that it doesn’t happen again.
Infinitely Polar Bear is released on DVD on Monday, 25 January and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 28 January.