Film Reviews

MECHANICAL EYE – <i>Infinitely Polar Bear</i> (2015)

MECHANICAL EYE – Infinitely Polar Bear (2015)

Claire Graman

July 26th, 2015

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Mental illness is difficult to portray in a medium that provides us limited access to characters’ internal thought processes. The audience only sees outrageous behavior that, if not done skillfully, becomes mere quirkiness or a barrier to empathizing with the character. By basing Infinitely Polar Bear on her own experiences growing up with a bipolar father, writer/director Maya Forbes navigates these challenges, creating a sensitive family drama with moments of humor and hope.

Forbes’ directorial debut follows a family struggling to stay afloat in the late 1970s. Hoping to better provide for her family, Maggie (Zoe Saldana), pursues an MBA at Columbia, leaving her two daughters, Amelia (Forbes’ daughter, Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide), in Boston with her bipolar husband, Cam (Mark Ruffalo), who has recently moved out of a care facility after a breakdown. The rest of the film follows their challenges as they adjust, flowing between the children’s and parents’ points of view.

In a film like this, where plot points are minor (cooking dinner, buying a car, etc.), dialog and acting are key. Saldana’s performance is exceptional, proving that her ability to convey strength comes not just from the trappings of her typical sci-fi/action roles. With less care, her character could have devolved into the nagging wife or absent mother trope. Instead, Maggie anchors the film in a moving mix of sorrow and hope. Ruffalo’s acting also deserves the acclaim it’s receiving. Even at his most erratic, he remains relatable. He convinces you he is a good father while swearing at his children (who, incidentally, swear back).

Forbes writes the children well — they are aware (but not able to understand completely) and active within the family dynamic, which is deftly explored. Forbes, for instance, compares Cam’s fear of abandonment to his daughters’ through visual parallels between a scene in which he walks away from them and another scene in which the roles are reversed. Polar Bear shows that children need to care for their parents as much as they need to care for them. As the daughters, Wolodarsky and Aufderheide are charming, but they can’t keep up with the adults in acting — a flaw, but one mitigated by solid writing.

What really holds Polar Bear back is its lack of subtlety. You will know conflict when it happens because the characters will yell about it. Often. Pathos, on the other hand, is neatly signaled by the breathy tones of an indie song, making the film too self-conscious for its own good. This bluntness is especially disappointing, given how skillfully the film handles complex issues of race, class, gender, and mental illness. Take the wealthy grandmother, who offers to loan them a luxury car, but believes helping with education costs would give the girls “the wrong ideas.” Meanwhile, Maggie struggles to find work, even after earning her MBA. Forbes makes it clear that poverty, prejudice, and the way they both structure life are just as threatening to the family as Cam’s instability.

When the film succeeds, it makes the family’s struggles more palpable and their love for each other truly powerful, leading to an uncertain but still satisfying conclusion. In spite of its twee moments, Infinitely Polar Bear is a solid debut, balancing humor and sadness, childhood and parenthood, alienation and connection.

Claire Graman is an English PhD candidate at the University of Oregon. She studies history, film, and when the two collide. Mechanical Eye is an irregular column in which she provides critical analyses of films screening locally.

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