Plowing through the boy-meets-girl-makes-family exposition before the opening credits are through, the super-8 home movie that opens Maya Forbes’ directorial debut, "Infinitely Polar Bear," sets the tone for her highly personal if slightly romanticized portrait of familial love and mental illness. As the glowing faces of a particularly handsome couple (Marc Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana) and their pair of adorable young girls (Imogen Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide) flicker across the screen, the voice-over of the elder daughter informs us that the rugged paterfamilias we’re looking at is a diagnosed manic-depressive. Drawing from the wellspring of her own life, Forbes’ agile tone allows the film to indulge in heartbreak and humor with equal measure.
For the Stuart family, order and disorder are defined according to the erratic barometer that is Cam’s mental state on any given day. It’s a good day when he takes his daughters foraging for mushrooms in the forest and it’s a bad day when he yells at his wife, Maggie, in front of them wearing nothing but a red speedo and welder’s goggles. The latter marks the beginning of a breakdown that lands Cam in the hospital and severs his relationship with Maggie, who moves the two girls from their home in the New England countryside to a tiny flat in Cambridge where she can’t seem to find well-paid work. It’s Cam’s family money that keeps them afloat, and although he comes from a long line of Boston blue bloods, codes and mores prevent him from accessing any more than what he needs for base-level survival.
Hitting rock bottom while her husband is holed up at a halfway house, Maggie decides to apply for her MBA, receiving a scholarship to attend Columbia University. Convinced that this is the best long-term plan for her children’s future—their education in particular—she leaves the girls in the care of her recently released husband with his doctor’s blessing: regular routine is apparently just what Cam needs to keep him focused and on a healthy mental track.
As handy in the kitchen as he is with a wrench, Cam seems like he’d be well-suited to homemaking but keeping up with the endless piles of dirty dishes and heaps of laundry, not to mention his girls’ rambunctious energy levels, proves an overwhelming task. As a father he oscillates between feckless and resourceful: he buys a cheap car with a gaping hole in the floor, but steals two silver pans from his grandmother’s house to fix it; he kicks the door in drunk one night in an attempt to teach his girls that a chain lock provides nothing more than a "false sense of security" only to install a proper padlock the next day.
The film moves in energetic waves, cresting and breaking along with Cam’s manic episodes. With his crooked smile, squinting eyes, and jerking movements, Ruffalo, as always, delivers a strong performance, though his fits are for the most part more endearing than they are troubling. He’s well paired here with Saldana, who moves with balletic grace, her statuesque poise frequently giving way to affecting emotion.
There’s a moment in conversation between the two of them when Maggie, in an attempt to justify her decision to move to New York, comments: "when white people live in squalor it’s considered ‘eccentric.’" It’s an apt observation for the mixed-race family at the film’s center. Their rent-controlled apartment may be a complete mess, littered with Cam’s half-completed fix-it projects, but the environment seems closer to a penurious playground than a den of destitution. While the girls are ashamed of where they live, when they finally invite their neighbors over upon their father’s unrelenting insistence, there is trampoline bouncing, a rousing game of roulette, and cinnamon toast served on a silver platter—sure, one of the kids eats it off Cam’s giant machete, but what’s the worst that could happen?
There are a fair amount of doors slammed, tears shed, and f-bombs hurled but the household dynamic eventually settles into one of touching codependence that culminates in the film’s tearjerker of a final scene. Cynics may scoff at the fact that "Infinitely Polar Bear" glosses some of the filmmaker’s darker memories, but they’ll need an ice bucket handy if they intend to avoid its warmth altogether.
"Infinitely Polar Bear" opens in limited release this Friday.