The polar bear of the title of Maya Forbes’s debut feature isn’t the literal animal, but a mistaken reference to “bipolar disorder” on the part of Faith Stuart (Ashley Aufderheide), one of two daughters of the manic-depressive Cam (Mark Ruffalo) and his estranged wife, Maggie (Zoe Saldana). Based on Forbes’s own childhood experiences growing up with a manic-depressive father, Infinitely Polar Bear, structurally speaking, plays like a scrapbook geared toward emphasizing the positive. The clear-eyed detachment of the Safdie brothers’ Daddy Longlegs, another fictionalized cine-memoir of life under the eye of a deeply flawed patriarch, evidently isn’t for this filmmaker. Seemingly rifling through a memory bank and choosing to exhibit only the most buoyant bits, Forbes reveals herself as a sunny optimist, insistent on remembering the ecstatic highs and never dwelling on the despairing lows.
Infinitely Polar Bear doesn’t always escape a feeling of smoothed-over blandness. There’s an intriguing suggestion that, in the 1960s, when Cam and Maggie met and fell in love, Cam’s manic-depressive behavior came off as rebellion in the context of the countercultural upheavals of that decade; when such a bohemian golden age passed in the late ’70s and early ’80s, his behavior was exposed for the mental illness it always was. Cam’s privileged background also offers hints of something more incisive, especially when one discovers that, even though she technically pays her son’s rent, his wealthy mother is deliberately refusing to help out her son and his family, thus forcing Maggie—a black woman from a working-class background—to put her daughters in Cam’s care while she pursues an 18-month MBA program at Columbia. Instead of exploring such threads with any depth, however, Forbes plays coy, seemingly afraid of anything that might puncture the film’s whimsical surface.
And yet, perhaps much like Cam himself, Infinitely Polar Bear charms more often than it frustrates. Much of the film’s success can be laid at the feet of Mark Ruffalo, who provides moments of much-needed live-wire spikiness: Though Cam’s child-like demeanor plays to his emotionally sensitive strengths as an actor, Ruffalo isn’t afraid to play up the character’s impulsive tantrums to fully off-putting effect, conjuring up a portrait of a character as terrifying as he is endearing. And Aufderheide and Imogene Wolodarsky, as the older daughter, Amelia, give performances remarkably free of cutesy playing-to-the-camera tics; their characters’ love and exasperation toward their father, and the strength they were forced to develop as a result, are etched into their every facial expression and physical gesture. If Infinitely Polar Bear is sometimes too rose-colored in its perspective, its moments of honesty and overall sincerity ensure that the film is ultimately more affecting than it ought to have been.