Director: Maya Forbes
Paper Street Films/Park Pictures/KGB Media
Clearly a memoir-as-movie, Infinitely Polar Bear is set in the late 1970s and tells the story of a father with bi-polar, he’s “reduced” to the role of stay at home dad in an era when this wasn’t at all understood. His aiming-to-be-estranged wife is torn between protecting her children and her own sanity, she’s striving for a way forward – for her children’s father, for her through attempts to further her education and career prospects.
Infinitely Polar Bear features the very best performance Mark Ruffalo has offered in his career. And that’s saying something, he’s a subtle, mesmerising character-actor. He’s been in some dud-films but never offered a dud-role. Here in this dad-role he makes a promising film a revelation. It’s impossible to praise him without resorting to cliché, so here goes – Ruffalo isn’t even in the movie. We only – and always – see the character of Cam. Chain-smoking and with something similar to a soft-shoe shuffle he’s an exuberant Daniel Johnston. The highs are high, the lows get pretty dark – but Cam is mostly a danger to himself. He has demons to battle and his precocious girls give him something to live for, in some ways Cam could be the cliché too, were it not for the person that slipped right inside him, giving him depth; offering a charm, a sad wit, it’s never just as series of tics and quirks. This is light-shining performance – it just might be the performance to end any Oscar scepticism around “going full retard”.
But, also, Polar Bear isn’t just about Ruffalo’s performance. It’s through his performance that we get to enjoy a film that’s touching, honest, interesting, alert, aware and never bogged down in the heaviness that is so clearly also there. It’s the great skill of the lead actor, writer/director and supporting cast (including Maya Forbes’s own daughter playing the younger version of her mother) in making this a thoughtful, hopeful film.
Ruffalo’s performance is also deftly comic, allowing Zoe Saldana (as conflicted, confused mother, Maggie) to aim for stoic.
Also – the four family members that make up the principle cast, mother, father, two daughters, all have their moments to offer wisdom, and all have their battles, their moments of hopelessness. None of this feels clichéd – it’s believable, heartening, subtle, so skilfully blended are the vestiges of the story. It’s almost as if you’re faced with the choice of a tear to the eye or a chuckle bubbling up through the throat as the film reaches its end. Well, can’t it be both? In this case, absolutely.