They may not have it all together, but together, they may have it all. Such is the tale of Maya Forbes’ Infinitely Polar Bear which, like Still Alice and Silver Linings Playbook, gives us a look at mental illnesses, but this one with a bit more of a personal touch. The strength comes through it’s warm tone and likable cast that all manage to connect and make their bonds feel real and believable.
Now like the aforementioned films, Infinitely Polar Bear isn’t here to teach you about manic depression, but to show how one family may not have it all, but whatever they come up against, they will face it together.
The film begins with some expository narration about dad, who we’ll meet in a bit. He was diagnosed as manic depressive in 1967. Apparently he’d been going around in a fake beard in Cambridge and calling himself Jesus John Harvard. He met mom in Boston and told her of his breakdowns, but she didn’t care. Soon enough, the two got married and had two daughters, one of whom is narrating the beginning of our tale.
The year is 1978. We meet the father of the hour, Cam Stuart, played by Mark Ruffalo. Despite it being time for school, Cam has great news: he just got fired! Workplace politics, you know. Anyway, his two daughters- Amelia, played by Imogene Wolodarsky, and the younger one, Faith, played by Ashley Aufderheide- don’t think this will be good news for their mother, but Cam thinks otherwise.
After spending a bit of time in the woods, the girls head back home. Waiting with the car to take the kids to school is Maggie Stuart, played by Gamora herself, Zoe Saldana.
Well, the Marvel Cinematic Universe now has two of its characters stepping away from the action for a little bit.
Anyway, Maggie shows up for the girls, but then Cam shows up on a bike and wearing nothing but a speedo. He rants and raves about hunting in an enraged fit and manages to scare both Maggie and the girls. He even ends up taking out part of the car, so they’re not going anywhere.
Sometime later when Cam has mellowed out, he sits by himself while Maggie explains to the Amelia and Faith that their father is sick. When the police show up to haul Cam off, Maggie asks the girls to not tell their friends at school that their father got arrested.
Instead, the girls write letters to their father about how Mom is moving them to an apartment. The three then visit Cam in a medical facility. He tells them that he’s feeling much better thanks to his medication. More than that, he wants to go home.
Six weeks later, Maggie and the girls have settled into their new apartment, but things aren’t going so well. For one, Faith carves into the dinner table to pass the time, while Amelia isn’t a fan of the light. Maggie, though, is stressed out enough with her job and could do without her children’s whining.
Fair enough. So Amelia takes it upon herself to visit the halfway house where Cam now lives. Though it’s unexpected, Cam welcomes Amelia in and tells her of his plan to eventually leave the halfway house and get an apartment and job. After that, maybe Maggie will let him move back in with her and the girls. He says that he’s stopped drinking, so hopefully that’s a plus for him. Cam calls Maggie at her job- no personal calls allowed, mind you- to let her know about Amelia’s unannounced visit.
Back at Maggie’s, while Cam and Maggie talk, the girls get their laundry from downstairs. In a moment I can’t help but smile at because of how odd it is, the two run into other kids living in the apartment. These kids go Peabody, but the girls go to Lincoln, which is apparently a bad school. Amelia, who doesn’t want to lie, tells her father, who promises to teach the girls how to fight so they won’t get their asses kicked. It’s important that kids don’t get their asses kicked.
The kids do wonder why they don’t go to school in the Peabody district. After all, dad’s family is rich. This is a minor qualm I have, but let’s come back to that later.
Maggie, though, is making plans for her next move. She’s applied to business school received a scholarship to attend Columbia University. As such, she’ll need Cam to take care of the girls while she’s away. She’s taken precautions to make sure she’s around as often as possible. If she takes summer sessions as well, she can finish in 18 months. Plus, she’ll be able to visit on some weekends as well.
Cam feels that he’s completely unprepared move in and take care of the girls, but it’s good to have purpose and a routine in his life, so this could benefit everyone. Maggie reminds him that the two of them had a good education, so their daughters should have the same opportunity.
Following this, we get a brief scene of Cam and Maggie meeting Cam’s parents: Murray, played by Keir Dullea, and Pauline, played by Beth Dixon. Murray and Pauline are well off and affluent. And they refuse to lend a hand. That’s tough news for Cam and Maggie.
But soon enough, Maggie is all packed up and ready to head for New York. After some goodbyes and a quick family photo, she parts ways with the three. However, Cam can’t help but chase after the van to offer driving directions. It’s always important to be aware of potential alternate routes, you know?
So what does Cam do to entertain the girls? He takes them to the home of one of their great grandparents…which they no longer own. It’s a fancy location, courtesy of Cam’s family becoming wealthy through the railroad way back when. As such, they became one of the richest families in Boston. There is a trust, but only great grandma has access. It’s hard to explain. Again, I’ll get back to this.
Cam just takes the girls inside the home. Apparently because this is Boston, people practically expect you to walk into their homes. I’ll keep that in mind in the off-chance I ever visit Boston. However, the homeowner soon tells this stranger that, no, he’s not giving house tours.
On the drive back, Amelia and Faith let their father know just how much he embarrassed them. I mean, it wasn’t that bad, girls. This guy didn’t even know you. Cam is more angry than embarrassed, really. Back at the apartment, the girls call their mother and demand she come home right now, but she’s busy with registration.
Next day, the girls are almost late for school. Though Cam manages to drop them off, neither of them wants him to pick them up that afternoon.
Actually, he doesn’t get to pick them up because he runs into car trouble and spends the day working on fixing it. Heading home, Cam and the girls help a neighbor with her groceries, though Cam introduces himself to both her and every single person that they pass on the way to the elevator. After arriving at her door, Cam overstays his welcome and wants to help with her load, maybe with putting the groceries away too, but she has to cook dinner. Cam is the only one who doesn’t get that the neighbor just wanted to be rid of him.
That evening, as the girls get ready for bed, Cam shares a tale of his time at Harvard. Well, sort of two tales. The first involves a brawl with a musician who had his music interrupted by Cam’s singing. When the man jumped him, Cam shit his pants. How sweet. But that’s not what got him kicked out of Harvard. That came during the next semester when he registered for 75 classes. Why?
Cam gets to work around the house, as there are dishes to be done, clothes to wash, and boxes to move. However, he soon leaves and tells the sleeping girls that he’ll be back after midnight. Where does he go? To the bar for some brews.
When he returns, he finds the door locked. Amelia soon lets him in, but he warns her that a simple chain on the door won’t keep people from entering. Not for long, anyway, and especially not when you’re Bruce Banner.
Next morning, an angry Cam wishes his daughters a nice fucking day as they head to school. A real loving father, this guy.
Luckily, things go a lot smoother later on as Cam and the girls sing while they get the house in shape just in time for Maggie to arrive for her visit. The girls want to learn about their father, and Maggie reveals that Cam used to have a great job as a designer, but the pressure was too much for him. Maggie didn’t know he was manic depressive, but she’s not sorry that she married him either way because she still loves him.
This, I feel, is an appropriate point to stop with the plot. The movie isn’t very long as is and I don’t want to talk too much, as there are moments moving forward that I want to address while discussing the film.
Much like Still Alice and even other recent films like Silver Linings Playbook, tackling mental illness on film can be tricky. You want to shed light on the subject matter and inform viewers who may be unfamiliar about issues such as manic depression. At the same time, this is still a film, so you need to make sure that the audience is still engaged enough in the material to actually care about the characters and their situations.
Infinitely Polar Bear manages to do both, but also includes a personal touch. The director and writer, Maya Forbes, based this off of her father’s bout with manic depression. As such, I feel that there’s a bit more heart put into this film and while it doesn’t give as much information regarding manic depression as I would have liked, I think this is a strong first attempt for Forbes’ directorial debut.
And to talk about cinematography for a second, I did enjoy how a lot of the film is presented through home movies. It felt very evocative of the decade and never felt gimmicky to me.
There’s a lot of focus on the importance of family and how much, despite all odds, people try to make the most of a bad situation and weather the storm.
Instead of an actual storm, we’ve got Cam’s random fits of rage that Maggie and the girls endure as the man they love becomes someone else. But despite everything that Cam does, everyone sticks by him because they know that, ultimately, he has good intentions and their best interests at heart. Yes, it’s scary at times not knowing what Cam will do or what may trigger an episode, but the daughters are brave enough to withstand anything thrown their way. In a way, they’re more adult than he is.
And this goes hand in hand with the film’s theme of accepting responsibility. Cam in particular has to accept that he’s being tasked with taking care of two girls when he can’t even take care of himself.
By contrast, Amelia and Faith, despite being young, at least have an idea of how to handle their father’s episodes. They aren’t by any means old enough to care for themselves, as they still worry and even lock the door when their father leaves in the middle of the night, but they’re smart enough to know the world around them.
Each family member experiences growth, in a way. Cam, in spite of his episodes, comes to embrace his responsibility as a father taking care of two girls on his own. The girls grow more mature and keep Cam in check whenever he starts flaking on his duties, not to mention helping around the house when it gets messy.
And Maggie, though she’s not in the film as often as the others, learns that she needs to let her family go at times so she can grow on her own and better herself while pursuing her education. She wants what’s best for her family, but she also wants Cam to prove that he has what it takes to be a good father if the two of them really want to be a united family again.
Both Cam and Maggie talk of wanting a better future for their kids. They had opportunities ready and available for them, but Amelia and Faith attend a school that they don’t like and the family isn’t overflowing with wealth. Parents want to make sure that the world they leave behind for their kids is better than the one they grew up in, so Cam and Maggie are willing to make sacrifices to make sure the girls are better equipped to handle the world than they were.
There’s some discussion on race, class, and social stature that demonstrates this. At one point, for example, Maggie tells Cam that a single White father making it with two girls is a bit more appealing than the idea of a Black family barely staying above the poverty level. Maggie can’t secure a high level job not because she’s a Black woman, but because she has kids, which executives find could distract from her job.
However, I do have one issue with the talk of class. So we know that Cam comes from a wealthy family and there is a trust fund. There’s even a scene where he’s offered a Bentley by great-grandmother Gaga, played by Muriel Gould, who lives in a lavish mansion. Gaga already helps Cam’s family by paying their rent. He turns down the car because he feels he won’t be able to pay for gas, even though Gaga only wants to help. Some of Cam’s history with his family is necessary here.
Why does Cam not have access to his family’s money? We aren’t told that he’s a bad or negligent son and he seems to be on at least decent terms with his parents, so why can’t he just ask them for money? My guess is pride. Perhaps Cam wants to downplay the wealthy side of his family so he can prove he’s capable of handling himself, but then there’d be no need to show off a home that his family owned.
During this same scene, Cam tells the girls that only Gaga has access to the trust fund. He says that it’s hard to explain, but is it? One or two sentences would have done the job. And even if Cam is on good terms with his parents, we don’t know why they refuse to lend a hand. Since this movie is all about Maggie and Cam’s struggles, it would be nice to know how they ended up in this situation. I get it, it’s 1970s America and not everyone could afford to live in a penthouse- hell, not everyone can afford to do that in 2015, either- but if Cam comes from wealth, I would at least like some explanation of why he can’t touch any of it.
Cam himself, despite his flaws, is a very likable man. Watching him when he’s calm is the equivalent of watching a ticking time bomb with a slow fuse. Sure, there’s no imminent danger, but you know that things can and will get explosive later. We do see the aftermath of his episodes, both from his and the girls’ reactions to his behavior, and I could have stood for more scenes where he dealt with the consequences of his actions. But this movie isn’t about showing the real dark side of manic depression and bipolar behavior.
Yes, Cam has his flaws, but this is a wounded man that just wants to be a good father. At one point, Faith tells him that she needs a flamenco dress for a talent show. Rather than just brush it off, he immediately gets to work and spends the entire night working on a half-assed, not at all flamenco looking dress. The point isn’t that the dress doesn’t look authentic, it’s that he devoted so much time and energy into helping his daughter. When Cam gets to work, he can be very inventive, which comes from his past as a designer.
And Mark Ruffalo is well-cast for this type of role. He’s good at letting Cam’s inner rage stew and then explode, leading to some very tense situations where you’re just unsure what he’ll do next. Through his drinking and binge smoking, Cam is a man who is self-destructing as a half-accomplished man, but he refuses to let his disease and negativity get the best of him. Ruffalo manages to channel both the positive and negative aspects of Cam’s life very well and it’s hard to come down hard against Cam when he’s trying his best.
He feels unable to take care of the girls, but gives it his best anyway. He leaves them alone at night so he can drink, but upon seeing their faces when he returns, he knows that he’s made a major screw-up. And even when he tries to socialize with Amelia and Faith’s friends, it’s not done in a way that makes him look creepy- he wants the girls to socialize. And when they all go exploring in the woods, Cam manages to be both warm and entertaining.
Zoe Saldana is fine as Maggie, but I wish she appeared a lot more in the film. But then, the whole point of her character leaving is to further her education. Saldana is great with the material she’s given, though, as she wears exhaustion on her face from her job, the stress of taking care of her daughters, dealing with Cam’s mental problems, and the family’s socioeconomic status. Not to mention she’s a woman of color, which isn’t a problem in the film, but it is implied that it’s still a hindrance versus how people would view a White man in less than pleasant housing.
Saldana and Ruffalo do have great chemistry together, as they talk and bicker like they’ve been down this path hundreds of times, but will keep moving forward together in order to make it work. They really come alive as a struggling pair doing all they can not just to stay afloat, but make a better life for their daughters.
These girls, in my opinion, are the heart of this movie and the main things that keep Cam moving. Amelia and Faith are not your typical children in films that do nothing but whine or end up in situations where they need help or have to be saved or coddled. They aren’t here just to give Cam something to do.
No, Amelia and Faith have actual personalities. Unlike most kids who are just stuck between their parents’ conflicts, Amelia and Faith are mature and responsible when it comes to dealing with their father’s episodes. They call him out when he’s not keeping the apartment clean, they don’t always want or seek his attention, and instead of just going along when he has his breakdowns, they challenge him if he starts to act like an asshole.
In addition, Amelia and Faith do what they can to make sure the home remains stable. There’s a nice little moment where they push their parents together when they’re talking, as if that alone would literally bring them together.
And even though their father can be explosive at times, the girls at least want him around. Cam is a chain smoker and that pays off later when the girls put nothing but anti-smoking signs around the house, even on Cam himself.
Not once did I ever find them annoying. In fact, were it not for them, I wonder what Cam would have done for himself. Both Imogene Wolodarsky- Maya Forbes’ actual daughter- and Ashley Aufderheide both have play off of Ruffalo well and the three feel like an authentic family, such as when they sing while cleaning the house or arguing about whether Cam has his own social life when he decides that he wants to hang out with his daughter’s friends.
Again, if I had any gripes, it’s that I wish we got more of the history with Cam’s relationship with his family, but that’s fairly minor. Infinitely Polar Bear is very much a feel good movie. Maya Forbes’ first directorial outing gave us a look at a damaged man who tries his damndest to be a good father and provide for his kids. Through some great chemistry from the four main leads and a lot of heart put into this film, Infinitely Polar Bear is a very warm film that I very much recommend.
And now we know what would happen if Bruce Banner and Gamora ever decided to settle down and have a family.