With its based-on-the-director’s-life pedigree and stars Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana, “Infinitely Polar Bear” — horrible title aside — sounds like many Sundance films past and present: a family struggles with mental illness, trying to keep one person whole while also keeping — or failing to keep — the family together. And after writing such good-to-indifferent Hollywood product like “The Rocker,” “Monsters vs. Aliens,” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days,” you can hardly fault writer-director Maya Forbes for trying to create something a little more substantive and a little less glib. And yet, even based on her experiences, “Infinitely Polar Bear” is so phony that you can imagine the production budget being made up of three-dollar bills; it treats severe mental illness as a series of quirky, fun-sy tics; the circumstances of its characters are tortuously contrived; and every child character seems not like a real, living child, but rather a 40-year-old with a sparkling wit who’s been struck by a shrink ray.
Set in 1978, the film begins with a family; dad Cam Stuart (Mark Ruffalo) tells his daughters Amelia (Imogene Wolarski) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) that they don’t have to go to school. He got fired, so they can pick mushrooms and explore the forest and join him in his freedom. His wife, Maggie (Zoe Saldana), unnerved by Cam’s mania, locks herself and the kids in the car while Cam bicycles around the cold fall field in a matching red speedo and headband. While seizing on this one detail is picayune, it’s worth noting that the degree of design and effort that went into that moment is actually what ruins it. Mental illness is a lot of things, but puckishly color-coordinated is not one of them.
After a stay in an institution and a halfway house, with Maggie and the kids having moved to the city, Cam comes back just in time for Maggie to leave; in a last-ditch attempt to change the family’s circumstances, she’s applied for a Columbia MBA, and gotten in on a scholarship. If she pushes it, she can be done in 18 months, and she’ll come back every weekend. Cam will have to take care of the kids and himself, neither of which he’s especially qualified to do. Cam comes from a long line of well-to-do Boston blue-bloods, but the family matriarch who controls the funds won’t give Cam the money to get the kids to a better school — even though she pays his rent — in a bit of hair-splitting that seems solely to help the thin plotting stay propped up.
This then might be the problem with “Infinitely Polar Bear” at heart; in her director’s notes, Forbes explains how all of the above — manic father, long-distance business school mother, a wealthy family’s weird ethics about work and effort — were part and parcel of her own life. In life, the truth is in itself enough; on the movie screen, however, the truth must also be plausible, and Forbes’ script simply cannot make the things she lived through come alive for us in anything but the most glib, shallow, and contrived way.
Ruffalo and Saldana are both charismatic and easy to watch, but their performances feel both shallow and showy, underdone and overblown. Ruffalo is the manic pixie dream guy here — living and tender, brash and loud, demonstrative and friendly to a very real fault. Compared to some other honest and heartfelt performances of mental illness in even other Indie and Sundance films — Damian Lewis in “Keane,” perhaps, or Peter Greene in “Clean, Shaven,” both by Lodge Kerrigan — Ruffalo makes manic depression look huggable and snuggly, not the terrifying thing it actually is for its victims and those around them. Saldana gets to play dress-up (her job interview ensemble is so Faye Dunaway, it’s hilarious) and emote, but she can’t make us believe in her or her choices. And as for Wolarski (Forbes’ own daughter) and Aufderheide, well, these are very young people, so let it simply be said that the fault in their performances is not theirs, but rather the script’s.
Again, this is Forbes’ life and this is her version of her memories — but even so, you have to think there’s a little too much misty water-coloring going on here and not enough of the stark black-and-white realities of family, child raising, mental illness, or all of the other concerns (race, gender politics) that Forbes touches upon lightly, if at all, before getting back to yet another scene of Ruffalo being cute until he’s scary until he’s cute again, and Saldana being tormented by her tough choices. “Infinitely Polar Bear” is a classic example of a major fatal flaw in filmmaking: failing to make sure your movie actually deals with what it’s actually about. Even with being drawn from life, “Infinitely Polar Bear” feels less like a portrait and more like a cartoon. [D+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.