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Movie Review of the Week – “Infinitely Polar Bear”

Movie Review of the Week – “Infinitely Polar Bear”
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By Alison Bailes

So often mental illness is played for laughs or for tragedy in film. Rarely is it portrayed with as much warmth and feeling as in this intimate indie drama.  A huge hit at the Sundance Film Festival, the film was bought by Sony Pictures Classics and should prove a buoyant springboard for first time filmmaker Maya Forbes.

Forbes, who scripted “Monsters vs. Aliens” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days” writes from a personal place and it shows. As a child, her father suffered from manic depression and she and her younger sister lived with him while her mother moved to New York City to get her MBA.  Like watching Super 8 home movies, “Polar Bear” unfolds in a gauzy montage of memory, zeroing in on 1978 when, his illness diagnosed, he was treated with giant doses of Lithium, yet still hardly understood.

Mark Ruffalo (“The Avengers”, “Foxcatcher”) is hugely appealing as Cam Stuart, the offspring of an old Boston Blue Blood family that chooses to keep him in genteel poverty…perhaps due to his erratic behavior or the fact that he has a breakdown that requires institutionalization. Cam’s wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) stands by him, although the couple chooses to live apart after the breakdown. The fact that Cam has married an African-American is never particularly addressed in the film, although one wonders, reading between the lines, whether Maggie’s race also had something to do with the tight purse strings of the stuffy Stuart clan.

Cam is unable to hold down a job and Maggie works to keep things together. Seizing a chance to better herself, and improve the family’s future, she embarks on an MBA program. She leaves Cam in their quaintly bo-ho apartment in Cambridge during the week, watching over their two young daughters.  Much of the humor comes from Cam’s wobbly attempts to run a household and fit in around the apartment complex. The girls are horrified at his eccentric behavior, mortified by the shambles of their home. Cam, who thinks he is merely friendly and gregarious, frightens the neighbors and alarms anyone he has contact with.

Although the darker side of bipolar disorder is touched on here (Cam leaves the girls alone at night to go out drinking), mostly Cam is shown to be a loving father who just can’t help his impulses. Ruffalo captures Cam’s helplessness, his need to please but also shows us glimpses of reckless danger in Cam’s eyes. Seen from the perspective of his daughters, Cam is an embarrassing parent and their youth shields them from the real implications of his behavior. The movie may be over-fond of Cam, but then, what child of a loving parent doesn’t “mis-remember” some of the bad stuff?

Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide are natural on-screen presences as the sisters and Saldana radiates love, determination and pain. Ruffalo shines in every scene as the conflicted Cam, oozing charm alongside the warning bells going off around him.  The Seventies period setting is lightly but effectively captured and we can’t help but marvel at the lack of seatbelts in cars almost as much as we question Cam’s particular parenting style.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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