If someone were to suggest a just-released patient from a mental hospital would be the ideal caregiver for two young girls, any normal person's immediate response would be, "No. No way. Never, never, never." That is, unless the patient was Cam Stuart (the infinitely wonderful Mark Ruffalo), who is the eye of the emotional hurricane that is Infinitely Polar Bear—a funny, sad, authentic and sweet true story from writer/director Maya Forbes, whose own experience as a 10-year-old inspired this marvelous film.
"In 1967, my father was diagnosed as a manic depressive," says the young narrator at the beginning of Infinitely Polar Bear as we witness Cam leading two young girls through the woods on a mid-day adventure.
"Why are we celebrating? Because I just got fired," Cam shouts to his puzzled daughters. "Your mommy is going to be so happy that I took you out of school."
Moments later, we see their mother, Maggie (Zoe Saldana in her best work to date), who has had it with her husband's manic episodes. She packs up the girls and drives away from the madness that has defined their lives. Making things worse we watch Cam, who is in full-tilt mania, jump on his bicycle—clad only in tiny red briefs—and chase the disappearing car in a humorous but sad scene. Soon, Cam is led away in handcuffs by police and admitted to a mental hospital, just the latest in a string of intakes.
Infinitely Polar Bear is an oddly beautiful film that deftly negotiates the tricky business of portraying mental illness with a sense of realism. Not since Silver Linings Playbook has a movie so expertly discovered the tenderness and humor of surviving the storm that can surround bipolar disorder.
The title of the the film is bizarre and might even serve as a barrier to audiences finding Infinitely Polar Bear. First, don't walk away from it—run to this film, then run and tell someone else about it. The movie's title comes from Cam's youngest daughter mishearing a doctor talking about her dad's bipolar disorder diagnosis.
"My dad is totally a polar bear," she proudly tells her friends. Even Cam scrawls the words "infinitely polar bear" when he's asked to describe his condition on a medical intake form.
What occurs following Cam's diagnosis and after his hospitalization is the most improbable event of all. Broke, stressed and overwhelmed, Maggie decides to go to business school and is promptly accepted by New York City's Columbia University—but there's a big problem: Cam and the children live in Massachusetts. Instead of uprooting her children, Maggie leaves the girls in Cam's unstable hands. I swear if this story weren't true, I never would have believed it.
There are plenty of tears (most of them happy) and genuine out-loud belly laughs in Infinitely Polar Bear, which is never emotionally manipulative or false. We see Cam in some pretty dark days and nights, but the days become weeks, weeks become seasons and eventually Maggie graduates from Columbia with honors. What happens after her graduation is a big surprise, and I wouldn't dream of spoiling it.
Since his breakthrough performance in 2000's You Can Count on Me, Ruffalo has proved to be one of the best actors of his generation; and, more often than not, he is the best thing about the movie he's in—even his turn as Bruce Banner/The Hulk is the best thing about The Avengers franchise. To say Ruffalo's work is effortless is not to give him enough credit for his craftsmanship. In Infinitely Polar Bear, his superb performance helps weave a story that is more about a father's love than a father with mental illness. In that, Ruffalo wrangles the extremes of his character with equal parts passion and subtlety.
High marks also go to Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide (as daughters Maggie and Amelia) for two of the best child performances of the year. Wolodarsky is Forbes' own daughter and, as a result, Infinitely Polar Bear is as much about a mother's love as it a father's.
The film is rated R for strong language. Cam is a handful and when he goes off on someone, he goes full polar bear and drops more than a few F-bombs. Nonetheless, I'm inclined to encourage parents to take kids 10 and older to see this movie. It's a wonderful story about a family's journey through a troubling period—and what family doesn't have a few of those?
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Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by David Grann, the film seems like a cross between an Indiana Jones movie and a Joseph Conrad novel—one where the world seems full of possibilities, rather than limitations.