Hard-Forged Hope: A Review of ‘Infinitely Polar Bear’

by | Aug 7, 2015 | Creative Nonfiction, Film and Media

Maya Forbes’s feature debut Infinitely Polar Bear guides its audience through a landscape as surreal and unfocused as the mental illness it takes, with a childish skew, for its title. The movie revolves around Cam Stuart (Mark Ruffalo), a Harvard expellee en route to recovery from the latest of several severe manic depressive “breakdowns.” Complicating his recovery is his newfound responsibility: caring, alone, for his two young daughters in Boston, while his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) attends graduate school at Columbia. A tumble into the family drama, Infinitely Polar Bear carries a pervasive and convincing note of anxious uncertainty, maintained throughout the movie. That uncertainty, though, runs the risk of seeping through unflatteringly into the filmmaking itself.

The movie takes on a varied and tangled load of issues from the outset: being a mixed-race family in 1970s Boston and their struggles with persistent poverty are all, at times, more frequently emphasized than Cam’s illness. His manic depression, though, despite these other anxieties, is what lights the film’s fuse: illness to recovery, isolation to reunion.

Forbes introduces the tangled landscape via a child’s voice-over, framing the story from  the viewpoint of memory while leaning into a storybook-like haze. Infinitely Polar Bear begins by offering simplicity: Cam’s daughter earnestly narrates that the family was “happy,” “even if there was more to it than that.” The introduction embodies the warmth which saturates the rest of the film, imbuing its gritty subject matter with something like cheer: skipping half-hipster hues of a Super 8, the jutting lens-flare flashes of rural sunshine. The gleeful, high-energy shots imply, in the fragmentary gaps between them, a sense of romanticized summery jubilation.

That Super 8 style serves to remind us, partly, that we are entering another time, when stay-at-home fathers are not the norm and mental illness has a different social overtone. The idyllic introduction prepares us for that stability to be overturned by Mark Ruffalo’s entrance in a bright red swimsuit, riding a bicycle along the family’s driveway in a vaguely, darkly clownish portrayal of a severe manic episode. Huddled in the car, his wife and two daughters cower as Ruffalo bangs on the windows flat-palmed, finally ripping up the hood and dismantling a piece of the engine to prevent them from driving away.

This episode is Cam’s rock bottom, the breakdown that jolts his family apart. He goes into voluntary commitment at McLean Hospital, and the film then becomes preoccupied with fragmented family trying to draw itself back together, husband to wife, children to father. And yet, there’s something about the scene that feels slightly posed, too conscious of its own shock and trauma. To its credit, the logic-less mounting violence of Cam’s assault on the car instills a genuine sense of fear that does not quite leave our perception of Ruffalo—a perennially soft-eyed casting choice for his hard-drinking, explosive character—for a long time. He carries a hint of danger as he stumbles into his recovery. Though we understand it to be among his worst episodes, it is by no means his first, nor the first which his young daughters have witnessed.

Forbes builds an undeniable, tender affection between audience and the Stuart clan, the core of the film’s exceptionally small cast: the children, Amelia and Faith, played by Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide respectively, are bright centerpieces. They are, primarily, what feels at stake in the film—their wellbeing, their relationship to their parents. They are self-reliant, rowdy, self-aware, and obviously, convincingly, childish. Their variable relationship with their father, alternating between desperation for proximity or distance from him, serves as a kind of meter for his own wellbeing, as does his commitment to and care for them.

Infinitely Polar Bear sceneThat unsettled, half-dangerous sense hasn’t abated when his two daughters are left alone with him, as Maggie goes off to Columbia Business School in hopes an MBA will help to alleviate the family’s poverty. Neither has the sense of the movie’s somewhat clumsy self-situating impulse. Ruffalo takes his daughters into an “ancestral” family home in Boston, promptly to be kicked out as invasive strangers. He steals the cookie sheets from his wealthy aunt’s house to patch the floor in his rickety new car. He dresses in a suit to buy a junk heap of a car, and parks it in a lot where his crisply dressed wife has to duck under a lift-up chain link fence every weekend, when she arrives back in Boston on the bus. The movie feels deliberately topsy-turvy, forcibly spontaneous. Its desperation to remind its audience of the fragile balance in its characters’ lives feels like an extended montage, meant to supply tone rather than cohesive flow of one scene into another. It’s a movie in episodes, whose puzzle pieces don’t quite fit snugly together. While this disjoint may intend to mirror a similar unfocused, manic-depressive dissociation from reality, the effect falls short.

Part of that self-consciousness comes through in the writing itself. The movie is not only Maya Forbes’s directorial debut but also her screenplay; there is occasionally a sense that the lines were written with a practical, cinematic mind as opposed to a writerly one. Conversations are functionally information-driven and truncated at times (the flat taunting of the neighborhood children), jutting up against moments of exceptional and grateful tenderness (Cam making a clumsy patchwork costume for Faith’s talent show).

Perhaps the episodic sense relates to Maggie’s perspective on the story, dropping in every weekend like drawing a lottery number: Will she visit a healing or an imploding household this weekend? Or perhaps the episodes are meant to evoke the scattered childhood memory of the young narrator, remembering the surprisingly good and the jarringly frightening, extreme splinters in the long slough of her father’s years-long recovery.

But the pieces don’t cohere into a satisfactory answer. In the end, the fragmentation was a little more clumsy than artful, a disappointing distraction from boldly convincing performances. The Stuarts had such a huge breadth of life behind them, determinedly bracing in anticipation of each tentative return to stability. The clipped pace of the film brings these broad, emotive, immersive moments to a standstill. They fall breathlessly, haphazardly beside one another and left me a little dizzy. It’s an unflattering self-consciousness, marring the technical excellence of the movie’s other facets: its clear, patient plot, and its actors’ masterful commitment to their roles. Notably, the two young actresses have received highly favorable and well-merited acclaim, startlingly convincing as closely-bonded and steely-nerved sisters.

And yet that awkward pacing—fragmented form, tumbling around powerful content—does accomplish an off-balanced unconventionality. It crafts a genuinely disquieting relationship that makes us feel as if we don’t have—and won’t get—full access to the mystery of the family’s dynamic. Some moments are missed, or buried, and the effect is unsatisfactory, but the hidden moments also imply a more subtle angle onto the nature of the family narrative. We enter the ongoing story for only a brief window, bracketing Maggie’s departure for and return from school. The curtain goes up on a family, with the childish sense of the family’s being “happy” as a helpful summary for all its other complications. As the lights come back up with the credits, the situation hasn’t simplified or concluded, only changed.

In a moment when criticism obsesses over continuing family narratives with Go Set a Watchman, struggling to marry dissimilar moments in the ongoing fictional life of a family, Infinitely Polar Bear offers a similar challenge on a smaller scale. The movie emphasizes glimpses, and whether the effect is cohesive or clumsy, the film’s episodes exist in difficult, challenging juxtaposition, one moment and one mode to another—rage, dysfunction, tenderness, cohesion.

Infinitely Polar Bear wanted more time to breathe, to fill in its own gaps and move organically. That posed self-consciousness haunting the film, though, does not come close to dulling the persuasive sense of life evoked in the characters themselves. It is the life of the characters—and the convincing sense of their continued life, outside of the frame of the movie—that makes the movie’s story enticing, disquieting, engaging. Even for the glimpses we have of them, the audience shares an insistent sense of optimism, mingled with a heartfelt devotion: actors to characters, characters to family, and family to a hard-forged hopefulness that follows the audience out of the theater.


About The Author

Alison Lanier

Alison Lanier is a Boston-based writer and editor currently working in communications at MIT. A graduate of Wellesley College, she is part of the editorial team at Mortar Magazine and AGNI as well as at Atticus Review. Her fiction, poetry, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in Ms. Magazine Online, Bust, The Establishment, and elsewhere.