Emmy-nominated screenwriter Maya Forbes’ Infinitely Polar Bear marks an auspicious directorial debut. This intensely personal film, reminiscent of François Truffaut and Richard Linklater’s movies about childhood, recreates Forbes’ troubled Boston girlhood during the 1970s. Indeed, Forbes’ own daughter, Imogene Wolodarsky, plays Amelia Stuart, who is mostly raised by her manic depressive father Cameron Stuart (Mark Ruffalo) after her mother, Maggie Stuart (Zoe Saldana), leaves the family to pursue a master’s degree in Manhattan in this heartfelt, touching and often humorous feature.
Somehow Imogene and her sister Faith (the delightful Ashley Aufderheide, the central casting version of an adorable biracial child) must cope with being raised by a mentally ill parent, while mom strives to support the family by advancing herself through higher education. Cameron is at the center of the saga, which is often ruled by his moods, his highs and lows. Although a Boston blueblood from a privileged background, these Brahmins have more or less cut the erratic Cam off from the family fortune. Actually, he is a loving, attentive (if decidedly unconventional) dad, and the added responsibility of raising his daughters as a solo parent while Maggie studies in New York seems to somewhat ground him.
As the oft exasperating Cam, Ruffalo turns in a poignant performance that should make him a strong Oscar contender, as the Academy loves its somewhat mentally or physically disabled characters. However, Infinitely Polar Bear (the term Cam’s children use for his bipolar condition) never fully explains why the beautiful, ambitious Maggie would marry a n’er-do-well loser like Cam, who spent their entire first date regaling Maggie with stories about his mental illness. What did she miss in this conversation?
As a female, the sultry Saldana is far more attractive than Ruffalo is as a male, so why she wed this guy who becomes, at one point, institutionalized remains pretty much a mystery. Let alone why she had two children with this total flake (albeit a sometimes lovable one). One half suspects that Maggie attends a far away graduate school to get away from Cam as much as because she realizes that she must receive an advanced degree so she can provide for her kids (all “three” of them). I didn’t buy their relationship; perhaps this lapse in credulity is because Polar is told from a daughter’s point of view, and it may be too difficult and painful to fully pry into and comprehend one’s own parents’ tumultuous private lives.
Another shortfall is how little Polar deals with the fact that the couple is multi-racial and their children are biracial. As the recent massacre in Charleston and a string of police/vigilante killings of Blacks demonstrate, racism is very much alive and un-well, still a dominant feature of American life. Indeed, in writing about U.S. history one could be tempted to paraphrase Marx and Engels’ dictum on class in The Communist Manifesto by proclaiming: “The history of all hitherto existing American society has been the history of race struggles.” If that is still true in 2015 USA, imagine how much truer it must have been in 1970s Boston, when the city was gripped with convulsions over busing in order to desegregate schools. But Polar largely ignores and glosses over the issues of race and of two Black children being raised largely by a very Caucasian father.
In a canny, clever bit of casting, Keir Dullea plays Cam’s father Murray Stuart in a revealing cameo. Before Dullea attained fame as the astronaut who tangles with the murderous computer HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dullea depicted the eponymous David, a mentally ill young man who finds love with another troubled youth in 1962’s David and Lisa.
Despite its flaws Infinitely Polar Bear is well worth seeing by moviegoers who cherish character-driven indies. This critic looks forward to Maya Forbes’ future features.
Infinitely Polar Bear is now in national theatrical release.
Photo: Imogene Wolodarsky, Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana and Ashley Aufderheide in Infinitely Polar Bear .