Saturday movie review: Infinitely Polar Bear

Two of the most important commitments we make in our lives can be the most challenging to uphold. Those being vowing to remain with a spouse for better or for worse and committing to placing the needs of children ahead of our own wants and needs. Such commitments become even more of a challenge when mental illness is a factor, as is the case in INFINITELY POLAR BEAR.

Infintely Polar Bear

INFINITELY POLAR BEAR is an autobiographical tale from the perspective of a young teen in the '70s whose bipolar father (Mark Ruffalo as Cam Stuart) and black mother (Zoe Saldana as Maggie Stuart) struggle with their commitment to one another and their two bi-racial daughters. Writer-director Maya Forbes — of the infamous and affluent Forbes family — shares the tender slice-of-life story about the year her mother, determined to make a better life for the family, left Maya and her younger sister in the care of her father in Boston as she pursued her M.B.A. in New York.

It's a risky arrangement as manic-depressive Dad is not as committed to taking his lithium as prescribed and is not too jazzed about taking over full responsibility for the care of his precocious (and often foul-mouthed) daughters. Cam agrees, though, in hopes of winning back Maggie's heart fully and completely. And because he loves his girls to the core, despite his erratic behavior which can be construed as anything but loving.

I have little experience with (diagnosed) manic-depressives, so there were some scenes in which I felt Ruffalo might be overplaying Cam a bit — despite having been nominated for a Golden Globe for the role. When I researched for this review, though, I found that Ruffalo actually was spot-on in his portrayal, according to experts. In fact, mental health professionals were invited to a screening and one of those in attendance, John D. Gartner Ph.D, later noted in an article for Psychology Today, "The film is a masterpiece, one that I would argue deserves a place in the pantheon of the very best films ever made about mental illness—One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Rain Man, A Beautiful Mind. The story rings true because it is true."

Other comments about Ruffalo's Cam I found from a variety of mental health professionals offered kudos along the same lines. I'll take their word that manic-depressives truly can be that manic, that depressed as Ruffalo portrayed.

Zoe Saldana is fabulous as a woman determined to make a better life for her children, despite the sacrifices and the resistance from society as she pursues her goal. Saldana proved especially stirring when subtly revealing Maggie's conflicted feelings regarding how to move forward — or not — with her beloved husband whom she originally found eccentric, exciting, endearing but now primarily exhausting and frustrating.

Maya Forbes' real-life daughter, Imogene Wolodarky, plays Amelia Stuart, the film's narrator, which lends an additional family dimension to the movie. How interesting it must have been for the first-time actor to play her mom and see her tenacious grandmother and (now deceased) cantankerous grandfather through her mother's eyes and experiences. Ashley Aufderheide, also a first-time actor, played spunky younger sister Faith Stuart with humor and a seemingly genuine adoration of her big sister.

Forbes' unflinching look at the dynamics of her family — as a whole, not just Dad's illness — was tender and funny. And painful at times. The girls endured tough times related to the unusual custody arrangements, their mom's absence, their dad's embarrassing ways, their life of poverty. Maggie worked like mad to break through the stereotypical '70s expectations of mothers and women, especially black women. Cam alternated between accepting his condition then railing against it, against his loneliness as Maggie — and others — kept him at a distance, against the lack of financial support from his wealthy extended family.

Yet, despite sorrowful aspects, INFINITELY POLAR BEAR is an uplifting, joyful film with a theme of unconditional love and acceptance at its core.

Because of the Forbes connection thus interest to those in the financial world, The Wall Street Journal did an interview with Maya Forbes and Mark Ruffalo upon the film's release that I found especially enlightening:


INFINTELY POLAR BEAR (rated R for "language, some drug content, and brief nudity") opened in theaters last June and is now available on DVD and streaming services.