Generally speaking autobiographical movies about troubled childhoods make for a difficult sit. Too often these flicks are weighed down by maudlin sentimentality about acceptance or depressing moral lessons designed to pummel audiences into submission. All of which is why longtime comedy writer Maya Forbes’ directorial debut Infinitely Polar Bear feels like such a pleasant indie summer surprise. Her story might spring from familiar unconventional family movie tropes, but she avoids most of the irritating traps. Her film is buoyant and alive and moving and funny in ways that don’t normally find their way into films that deal overtly with mental illness. Yet, those emotions are part of any functionally dysfunctional family and simply by being willing to laugh at the occasionally tragic scenarios she presents, Forbes finds a level of charming authenticity that so many similar projects lack.
This particular family centers around Cameron (Mark Ruffalo), a severely manic/depressive father whose wealthy family supports him in tiny bursts and whose string of life failures from being kicked out of Harvard to being fired from every job he’s ever held are balanced only by the wonderful family he formed in between. His wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) is a strong-willed pillar who loves Cameron so thoroughly that she kept the unit together until a particularly extreme manic meltdown forced him into psychiatric care. She moves out to a tiny apartment with their two daughters Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide), but soon grows frustrated by poverty and decides to move to New York to pursue an MBA at Columbia. While she’s off studying, she leaves the girls to be raised in that tiny apartment by Cameron. The bipolar father and his adoring daughters then go through a series of strange events and bonding sessions with Maggie visiting on the weekends to complete the family unit. It’s clear that their lives will never be normal or conventional, but thankfully that doesn’t just lead to a series of disasters.
Forbes’ loving portrayal of her father and strange 70s childhood plays out episodically like fleeting memories rather than in any sort of contrived narrative arc. Yet, the movie somehow never feels like it’s meandering or in need of some sort of binding structure. The individual episodes are far too alive for that. Scenes slingshot from warm to tragic to funny to disparaging within seconds, much like the mood slingshot life of Cameron. At times the movie plays at an almost sitcom level of rapid fire observational comedy(in a good way), while at other times it pauses for more deeper matters like Maggie’s observation that when white people live in poverty they’re eccentric, but there’s nothing charming about that fate for black families. Yet there’s never a moment when any of it feels forced. Drawing heavily from her own life, Forbes plays out the big comedic, poignant, and transformative moments that arrive in anyone’s life, then lets the pass gently to the next moment without any sort of forced underlining. It works beautifully.
Ruffalo commands the movie in the central role. He plays it big by his subtle standards and while the role could teeter on the edge of obnoxiousness with a lesser actor, Ruffalo never falls into those pitfalls. His performance is writ large because that’s how Cameron lives. The actor never loses sight of his character’s damaged core and is comfortable enough to shrink down for a small moment when needed. It’s one of his finest performances and hopefully one that won’t be forgotten during awards season. The other three central roles almost feel a little underwritten by design. The children essentially remain observers without much life beyond their interaction with their parents. Thankfully Forbes nurses such subtle and naturalistic work out of Aufderheide and her own daughter Wolodarsky that it’s never noticeable. They live fully in their scenes and the audience can fill in the blanks between those moments should they choose to do so. Saldana delivers some of the most naturalistic work of her career as essentially the Tom Cruise/Rain Man role, required to play straight man and provide someone for Ruffalo to play off of. She creates such a strong, loving, and earnestly struggling role within those confines that it’s impossible to ever dismiss the character as a writing device.
In the end, Infinitely Polar Bear is such a small and subtle movie that it could easily be dismissed or forgotten for the wrong reasons. By refusing to didactically confront her central themes of mental illness or fractured families, writer/director Maya Forbes has created something that could never be mistaken for a standard prestige picture. That will likely diminish the attention her film receives, but it’s also the greatest strength of the wonderful little movie that she made. Creating an autobiographical story that feels this genuine and mining that material for so many rich laughs without ever falling into standard comedy trappings isn’t easy. She’s created an incredibly accomplished work for a first time filmmaker, even finding some standout visual and cinematic moments within her delicately conceived character piece. It feels like the filmmaker has a genuine voice bubbling to the surface here and hopefully enough people will notice for her to get another chance to develop her unique directorial perspective on the hilarious mess of life.