Film & Television

Family Story ‘Infinitely Polar Bear’ Melts the Heart

I remember taking a creative writing course in college. Each week, someone would read what he or she had written and the rest of the class would critique it, gently at first but with greater gusto as the semester progressed. One day, we were working on memoirs; the professor and an aspiring author ended up in a heated debate. The student petulantly defended his work. “But, that’s what really happened!” he insisted. I can’t remember what his story was about. But, I do remember the professor’s response. “Just because it’s true doesn’t make it a good story.”

By all accounts, writer/director Maya Forbes’ film Infinitely Polar Bear is true. And while it isn’t always what my long ago professor might have called “a good story,” it’s a powerful memory piece and a moving tribute to a loving family making the most of difficult times. In the movie, father of two Cameron Stuart (played by an electrifying Mark Ruffalo) suffers from bipolar disorder, as Forbes’ father Donald Cameron Forbes did in real life.

Maya Forbes is the eldest daughter of a mixed race couple, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the late 1960s. Her father was a member of a staunch Brahmin family (she’s related to Secretary of State John Forbes Kerry among other Boston elite). But thanks to his unconventional personality — not to mention his African-American wife — the family’s purse strings remained tied. In order to support the family, Forbes’ mother accepted a scholarship to Columbia University’s Business School, leaving Forbes and her younger sister in the care of their father for 18 months. It’s this period of upheaval that Forbes has brought to the screen.

In Infinitely Polar Bear, it’s hard to know where fact ends and fiction begins — or, more likely, where the adult’s memory has smoothed over the child’s experience. Other than burying (protecting?) the Forbes family name, the stories are remarkably similar. One detail that has been embellished is the source of the movie’s title. In real life, Donald Cameron signed himself in as “Infinitely Polar Bear” on one of his several stays at McLean psychiatric hospital. In the film, the words are put into the mouth of daughter Faith, too young to understand the term “bipolar.” It’s a moment of crafted cuteness that doesn’t ring quite true when so much of the movie does. In fact, one of the most poignant aspects of the film is how mature Cam’s two daughters are. They have to be.

When we first meet Cam, he’s taking his girls on a jaunt through the woods. They’re in nightgowns and rubber boots and not very happy about the situation. Cam proposes that they hunt for mushrooms to cook something special for their mother. “She’s going to be so happy that I kept you out of school today!” he announces. His older daughter Amelia quickly challenges him, “Does she know you lost your job?”

Cam’s Peter Pan behavior degenerates quickly. By scene two, mother Maggie is trying to escape with the girls. In bright red briefs and little else, Cam rides his bike up to the hood of their car and wrenches some pivotal piece out of the engine, holding it up and screaming at them “I am not manic!” The girls are clearly terrified and even Cam realizes he’s gone too far. “Your father loves us,” Maggie explains. “He’s just very sick right now.”

The breakdown forces the family to leave their idyllic country life and move to a tatty rent-controlled apartment while Cam recovers at the hospital. Maggie finds it more and more difficult to make ends meet and the two bright girls are forced to go to the local public school where, they’re warned, they’re going to get their “A kicked.” Striving for a better life, Maggie applies to business schools. With Cam on his meds and doing better, she decides it’s time for him to take over parenting. It will be good for him, she asserts. He’s ready.

But is he ready? Not exactly. There’s no question that Cam loves his daughters — and his by now estranged wife — with all his heart. But, his condition is unstable at best. Over the course of the 18 months Maggie attends Columbia, the girls ride an emotional roller coaster, parenting more often than they are parented. Cam builds imaginative (and expansive) inventions in their tiny apartment. He makes chocolate truffles from scratch. He stays up all night to sew a flamenco skirt and teaches the apartment building’s kids karate. But, he also flies into rages, frightens the neighbors, self-medicates with beer (“It works better for me than the lithium.”) and leaves the girls alone overnight when things get too tough.

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