Infinitely Polar Bear is a good example of how a film that looks on paper like a mess of indie clichés can be redeemed by fantastic performances … even if, ultimately, it remains a mess of indie clichés. “My father was diagnosed as manic depressive in 1967,” young Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) tells us in the opening narration, over 8mm home movie footage of dad Cam (Mark Ruffalo) goofing around. “He’d been going around Cambridge in a fake beard calling himself Jesus John Harvard.” Amelia then goes on to tell of how dad met mom Maggie (Zoe Saldana) while working at WGBH in Boston. “On their first date, he took her on a driving tour of New England and told her all about his nervous breakdowns.”
Then we cut to 1978, and Cam, having just gotten fired from his most recent job, is trying to take the girls — Amelia and her younger sister, Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) — mushroom picking. The young girls are far more worried about their free-spirited dad’s having lost yet another job than he is, and we sense that this is not the first time such a thing has happened. If anything, it might be the last straw: The next thing we know, Maggie is trying to take the girls away, as Cam goes through an alarming range of emotions — first, cheerfully saying he wants to go on a picnic, then threateningly smashing the car engine so they can’t leave, and finally breaking down crying.
Much of Infinitely Polar Bear focuses on Cam’s attempts, after a period of institutionalization, to reestablish his bonds with his family. Lithium keeps him on a more even keel than before, but he still struggles to figure out how to behave. He’s also saddled with responsibility for the two girls after Maggie gets into Columbia Business School and has to move to New York. She can’t take the girls with her; they’re broke, even though Cam comes from an old Boston Brahmin family.
Writer-director Maya Forbes based the film partly on her own experiences growing up with a bipolar father from a wealthy family and a self-made, African-American mother who decided to pursue an MBA in her 30s. That helps explain the film’s attention to detail, as well as the nonjudgmental way it draws its characters. It also probably helps explain the sensitive turns from Ruffalo and Saldana. There’s an inner logic to both their performances: We can see how, once upon a time, Cam’s pathological behavior probably manifested itself, at least in his mind, as a dashing joie de vivre; and we can see how Maggie’s torn between her affection for this man and the pain of knowing what’s in store for her kids if she fails to build a life for them. “When white people live in squalor, it’s eccentric,” Maggie tells Cam at one of the few points in the film that acknowledge race. “When black people live in squalor, believe me, no one’s charmed.”
Alas, Infinitely Polar Bear never quite transcends its quirk-tastic trappings. We’ve seen stories like this before, and they’re usually heartfelt; but all too often, there’s a kind of pre-fab indie sheen to them. Whether it’s the regular cutaways to home movies or the jaunty, folky music or the too-wise-by-half kids, it all feels very familiar, and not always in a good way. That’s not such a crime, of course. Familiarity is the film industry’s bread and butter, be it on the studio end or the indie end. Plus, it’s entirely possible that those of us steeped in indie movies are the only ones who notice such things. Even so, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that the thoroughly unsurprising direction of Infinitely Polar Bear is doing a disservice to the two phenomenal performances at its heart.