I was intrigued by the title. And that Mark Ruffalo was starring in it. And then I saw the trailer and I was sold:
I am a sucker for movies that depict the everyday joys and triumphs of life, especially family life. And that’s what Infinitely Polar Bear does. It’s based on writer-director Maya Forbes’ own childhood in 1970s Boston where her father was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was unemployable, and her mom went away to New York to earn her MBA in the hopes of lifting their family out of poverty.
According to this article in The Georgia Straight by Melora Koepke, Forbes “wanted to tell a story about everyday life, because those details are the most interesting things to me”.
It is Maggie’s decision (played by Zoe Saldana) that launches the movie’s bittersweet narrative as their two daughters, Amelia and Faith, get left in the surprising care of their manic depressive father Cam (played by Mark Ruffalo in an Oscar-worthy performance). This is where you see a chain-smoking father who so clearly loves his children but struggles with fits of temper, drunkenness, scaring his neighbours with aggressive kindness, and disorderliness to the point that his daughters don’t want to have any of their friends over to their “shit hole.”
I don’t have too much familiarity with bipolar disorder and yet I felt the movie did a fair job of showing the dad’s darker moments, but also showing his endearing side that made him an overall sympathetic character. Scenes of Cam yelling, throwing things, and then sitting depressed on a chair for days are combined with scenes of him spending all night sewing a flamenco dress for Faith or tagging along with his daughters to the park so he isn’t alone all day.
This article disagrees, saying the movie “doesn’t like to spend much time in difficult places.” The author cites the movie’s title as an indication of the movie being “a tad too precious for it’s own good”. The title comes from Faith’s misheard version of her father’s illness.
But I don’t know. I felt there were a lot of deep moments that gave me pause for thought about one’s upbringing, shame, comparison, and the complexity of marriage and parenthood. Cam and Maggie live in a difficult place. The mom is torn every time she comes back on the weekends to visit her family and then leaves them again during the week. Cam is emotionally wrought, being a full-time dad & mom to their girls while their mother’s away, hoping that Maggie will invite him back to live with them all after she’s done her schooling so they can be a family again.
In a very tender scene between Maggie and her oldest daughter Amelia (played by Forbes’ own daughter Imogene Wolodarsky), Maggie talks about how she met Cam in the late 60s, when everyone was having nervous breakdowns, so she didn’t think it was as big a deal as she knows now. Amelia looks wistful and says, “You’re probably sorry you married him.” “Never,” Maggie responds.
Even at the end of the movie, you still don’t know if they’re going to get back together. There is so much ambiguity. I like how Forbes describes it in the Straight article:
“I would think, ‘I’ll have the parents be divorced, because everyone understands that,’ ” she recalled. “But they’re not divorced, they’re separated. They’re in a grey area. And I decided to go with that grey area, to develop the characters slowly and not to worry so much about keeping them ‘likable’. Will Dad pull it together? Does he want to pull it together? Does Mom want him to pull it together? Sure, she wants their lives to work, but she’s scared, and everything is uncertain. It’s messy, like life. That’s the truth, so I decided to use truth as a guide.”
There were many moments when I laughed out loud—when Cam is dressed in short shorts and a shirt that are the same colour of obnoxious green (aka “the green bug” scene), and when he buys another beat-up car to drive that doesn’t have a floor and the girls are looking down at the moving road under their seats. Having Amelia narrate the story adds a child’s perspective to the scenes, and you feel their embarrassment about how their dad behaves with strangers, what he drives, and how they live. And then there were moments of crying at the difficulty of decisions you make when you’re an adult—how life is rarely ever simple.
It’s all very poignant, very well acted, and very in tune with the every day. If that’s your style, I would put this movie on your “must-watch” list of the summer.