If you had any concern at all that Mark Ruffalo, a longtime staple of the indie cinema world, had sold out for box-office glory and the Marvel universe, I serve up exhibit number one in his defense - Infinitely Polar Bear.
There have been other films with a central character who has bipolar disorder, most notably Silver Linings Playbook, but I can't recall a film, including Silver Linings Playbook, that created such a complex, fully developed and fully human central character as writer/director Maya Forbes's autobiographical feature film debut Infinitely Polar Bear.
In the film, Ruffalo plays Cam Stuart, an infinitely delightful man with an even more infinitely troubled mind. There's a reason for that troubled mind, of course, and that comes in the form of Cam's diagnosis of bipolar disorder, a diagnosis that keeps Cam experiencing everything that life has to offer at its manic edges.
Cam, based upon Forbes's real-life father, is painted through an affectionate yet richly authentic human lens that recognizes his challenges yet celebrates his inherent worth. As Cam, Ruffalo makes sure we understand both of these things.
As a writer who was married to a beautiful young stripper with bipolar disorder whose lows got to be a bit too much resulting in suicide, I will confess that I always approach a film such as Infinitely Polar Bear with more than a little hesitation while viewing it through much more than simply the usual critical lens.
Infinitely Polar Bear reminded me of everything that I loved about Laura, my late wife, who could simultaneously be the most delightful and compelling human being in the world and one of the most emotionally and physically draining.
It seems inevitable that someone will watch a film such as Infinitely Polar Bear, or any other film that features a character or story involving bipolar disorder, and loudly proclaim "That's not how it is!"
That makes sense, really. Bipolar disorder isn't just one thing just like people who experience cancer don't all experience the exact same thing. So be it. In so beautifully capturing her own experiences as a child growing up in a home with a bipolar parent, Forbes has crafted a story that is both intimately revealing and universal in its impact. Infinitely Polar Bear features many of the traits that we've come to know and expect about persons with bipolar disorder, most specifically the emotional highs and lows and often chaotic living, but there's never really any doubt that it's one story amidst a world with many other stories.
Ruffalo lives into the character of Cam with a level of honesty and vulnerability that won't much surprise those familiar with Ruffalo's indie work, but if your introduction to Ruffalo was his work in the Avengers films then you should prepare to be surprised. Ruffalo's performance is so honest that you'll undoubtedly find Cam to be as draining and unbearable as do those who surround him including his loving wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) and his two daughters, Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide).
While Forbes never lets us forget that living with someone who has bipolar disorder is challenging, with Ruffalo's immersive and wide-ranging performance at the helm we also never forget just how much it's worth it. Set in the 1970s, Infinitely Polar Bear also nicely captures a time nearly fifty years ago when people didn't always understand and most didn't want to.
The relationship between Cam and Maggie is portrayed realistically, mostly because Ruffalo is infinitely charismatic amidst all the emotional and physical chaos and because Zoe Saldana, mostly known for big budget work in Avatar, Star Trek and Guardians of the Galaxy, turns in one of her most disciplined and satisfying performances in years as a wife both in love and desperately needing to do something for herself in life.
It's that "something," in this case graduate school, that provides the core of what is essentially a rather thin storyline for Infinitely Polar Bear, a film so named because of the way that young Faith pronounces her father's illness. Maggie wants to enter a graduate psychology program in New York, a commitment that will leave Cam in a solo parenting role for an extended period of time.
What if, when it comes down to it, that's the only way for Cam to keep his family together?
Forbes brings everything to life in ways that are honest, entertaining, cringe-inducing, funny, often quite sweet and honest reflections of everything we both love and hate about those we call family. In addition to Ruffalo's award worthy work here, Saldana's performance is emotionally in-tune and feels honest, while young performers Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide are delightful and revelatory. Wolodarsky, the director's real-life daughter playing the character based upon the director, is mesmerizing as a young girl tasked with being both innocent and insightful enough to weave her way through being, at times, both parent and child. Aufderheide's ability to bring to life Faith's vulnerability is simply a joy to watch.
It seems almost inevitable that Infinitely Polar Bear isn't perfect, because how do you perfectly portray the imperfect life? I think that's part of the joy of watching it all unfold. Opening in Indianapolis this weekend as part of it nationwide indie/arthouse release with Sony Classics, Infinitely Polar Bear is ultimately a film about family that ultimately reminds us that our love is stronger than those things that challenge us along the way. Behind Ruffalo's immensely satisfying performance, it's also one of the year's most honest and satisfying cinematic experiences.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic