Lawrence Toppman

‘Polar Bear’ has a warm embrace

Imogene Wolodarsky, Ashley Aufderheide, Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana in Sony Pictures Classics' “Infinitely Polar Bear.”
Imogene Wolodarsky, Ashley Aufderheide, Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana in Sony Pictures Classics' “Infinitely Polar Bear.” Sony Pictures Classics

The key word in the title of “Infinitely Polar Bear” is the adjective. The rest comes from a misunderstanding by a little girl, who thinks her dad’s bipolar nature is “polar bear” disease. What really matters is the “infinitely” part: His wife and two daughters get caught up in a repeating loop of love, breakdowns, remorse and helplessness that seems never to end.

Writer-director Maya Forbes based this story on her own life; she was 6 when her father suffered what she has called “a series of manic breakdowns.” His wealthy New England family wouldn’t step in, apparently so poverty and travails could be character-building. Her mother went to New York to get an MBA, reluctantly leaving her jobless spouse at home to care for two elementary school-age girls.

Forbes makes her directing debut with this loosely autobiographical film. She also wrote the script after 15 years in Hollywood, “busily not writing the kind of film that I love best.” (She worked on “Monsters vs. Aliens,” “The Rocker” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days.”) Such personal projects often turn mawkish, but she doesn’t sugar-coat her dad’s problems.

Cam (Mark Ruffalo in a wide-ranging, powerful performance) is the kind of guy adults step away from quickly: He talks too loud, gets too close, seems frantic to help with tasks and advice. Other people’s kids love him, because he always gives in to impulses and lets his pleasure center make his decisions. His own kids step gingerly around him, like a firework they’re not sure how to set off: He could light up the sky or blow up in their faces.

The film might even be stronger if it were longer. I’d like to know more about long-suffering Maggie (Zoe Saldana), who was initially drawn to what she perceived as Cam’s zany zest for life. (She married him in 1967, when aberrant behavior raised fewer eyebrows. The film takes place mostly in 1978.)

I also wish I understood Cam’s kin better. They seem to be ruled by a matriarch who controls the Stuart family trust; she’s willing to give her grandson a Bentley she doesn’t need when his car breaks down, yet unwilling to help her great-grandkids move to a neighborhood with a decent school. Is senility at fault? Is she a racist offended by Cam’s marriage to a black woman?

However, the crux of the story comes across clearly. We know exactly what it’s like to live with a volatile, loving, anxious man who refuses to take medication that makes him fat and lethargic. We feel sympathy in equal measure for Cam and the family whose anxiety level never drops for long.

Forbes cast her own daughter, novice actor Imogene Wolodarsky, as the elder child, who represents Forbes at 10. Ashley Aufderheide, who has more experience, plays younger sister Faith. (Forbes’ sister China became the lead singer of Pink Martini; you might have seen her in May, when the band did a Charlotte Symphony pops concert. )

So the film has an unusual, occasionally uneasy mix of acting styles, as the naturalness of the girls blends with the expert, more formal performances of the adults. Yet in a way, that reinforces the mood Forbes creates: The children understand each other but don’t always connect with their parents. And in the end, you like all of them.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Infinitely Polar Bear

STARS: Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Imogene Wolodarsky, Ashley Aufderheide.

WRITER-DIRECTOR: Maya Forbes.

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes.

RATING: R (language).

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