Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Maya Forbes

Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Imogene Wolodarsky, Ashley Aufderheide, Keir Dullea.

Mental illness is a difficult subject to tackle, but it has often been explored in films, with the Oscar winning Rain Man, A Beautiful Mind, etc, being some of the standouts. But it seems that Infinitely Polar Bear sometimes hits a few false notes, and is never as engaging nor as confronting as it should have been, especially since it is based on the filmmaker’s own experiences.

Filmmaker Maya Forbes has drawn upon her own unconventional childhood and memories of her dysfunctional family for inspiration for this offbeat but somewhat disappointing drama that was one of the big hits at the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals last year.

Cameron (played by Mark Ruffalo, from Foxcatcher, etc) suffers from bipolar disorder, and experiences a lot of emotional highs and lows, but his erratic behaviour has thrown the family into turmoil. When the film opens he has just been released from half way house following a brief stint in the local mental hospital. He is separated from his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) and his two daughters Amelia and Faith (newcomers Imogene Wolodarsky, who is Forbes’ real life daughter, and Ashley Aufderheide). She can barely manage to keep the family afloat. But when Maggie goes back to college to study for an accountancy degree and has to live in another city, Cameron steps up to care for his two daughters in her absence. Maggie returns home whenever she can, unsure of what she will see or discover during her visits.

Thus begins something of an emotional rollercoaster ride for the next 18 months as Cameron tries to be a responsible parent despite his bouts of depression and manic energy. And the lively antics of his two daughters doesn’t always make the task of being a parent easy. His awkwardness and inappropriate behaviour is often a source of embarrassment for the two psychologically damaged girls who struggle to adjust to life with him. The three experience a kaleidoscope of adventures and emotional breakthroughs, but there is an episodic feel to much of the film and the pacing is uneven.

This is the directorial debut for Forbes, better known as a screenwriter who has worked on Aliens Vs Monsters and Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, as well as being a regular writer on the Larry Sanders Show, and she handles the material with some sensitivity. She avoids going too dark or depressing, preferring to keep the mood more positive and upbeat despite dealing with the tricky subject of mental illness and dysfunctional family life. Forbes brings a light touch to the material, although there are a few touching moments throughout the film.

Forbes elicit some great performances from her main cast. Ruffalo is good and grounds his character in real emotional depths. He delivers a complex and nicely nuanced performance as the flawed Cameron, and his performances here ranks up with his best work in films like The Kids Are Alright, Thanks For Sharing, and Foxcatcher. He brings a childlike enthusiasm and passion to his role and his endearing performance smooths some of the rougher edges off his character. There is also a great chemistry and dynamic rapport between Ruffalo and his two young co-stars that brings a lively energy to the film at times, especially Wolodarsky, who brings a poignant quality and intelligence to her performance.

Saldana brings some warmth and compassion to her role, although some of her character’s actions raise some questions, and she manages to convey a sense of self loathing and doubt as well. And veteran Keir Dullea brings gravitas to his brief turn as Cameron’s wealthy but emotionally distant father.

Infinitely Polar Bear is a bittersweet film that mixes humour, warmth and pain. Although it is set in the late 70s, Forbes thankfully avoids the temptation to overwhelm the film in period detail or a soundtrack of hits from the era. Nonetheless this is still an assured debut from Forbes that will resonate strongly with some audiences.



Speak Your Mind