Quirky childhoods are a frequent focal point for films, offering plots that are fun and, at times, relatable, but combining a quirky childhood with weightier subject matter can be tricky. This is the case with writer/director Maya Forbes’ Infinitely Polar Bear. Forbes’ inspiration for the film comes from her own upbringing with a father diagnosed as manic-depressive, and the lightly fictional results on display here do more to raise questions than simply provide entertainment.
While his manic depression makes it difficult for him to hold down a job, Cameron (Mark Ruffalo) has managed to create a great family with wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) and their two daughters, Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide). Unfortunately, as the film opens, Cam’s illness has led to a breakdown, leaving Maggie to make some difficult decisions about the family’s future.
As Cam emerges from his breakdown, Maggie comes up with a potential solution to help the family in the long term: she’ll leave Boston to earn her MBA at Columbia, with the hope of landing a better job when she graduates. In the meantime, Cam will move into the small apartment she rented after Cam’s breakdown to care for Amelia and Faith.
It’s a plan that makes some sense as a long-term solution, and attempts to keep her daughters’ lives from further upheaval, but as a practical solution, it’s horrible. In spite of his obvious intentions, Cam is simply not cut out to be the primary caregiver, and the film doesn’t make a solid case otherwise. As time passes, Cam regularly stumbles back into bad routines. The handful of changes Cam is able to make are small, but believable.
In displaying the effects of Cam’s manic depression throughout the film, Infinitely Polar Bear frequently juggles tone, providing a peek at the chaos of this family’s life. While the film’s movements between highs and lows do slow down at points, they’re never completely gone. The tone is largely kept through Ruffalo’s broad performance, which does a solid job of capturing Cam’s emotional swings while becoming more fluid as the film continues.
Though Ruffalo gets the showier role, it’s Saldana’s quiet performance holds the film together. But the best parts belong to the young girls, particularly Wolodarsky (who serves as the film’s narrator and is Forbes’ daughter). They believably shift in their allegiances between parents, as well as in showing how quickly a child’s love can move to exasperation. The pair provide two of the more remarkable child performances in recent memory, and they balance the film’s light tone and heavy subject matter more successfully than the film as a whole does.