Film & Television

Family Story ‘Infinitely Polar Bear’ Melts the Heart

infinitely_polar_bear_ver2Actor Mark Ruffalo does a tremendous job as Cam. His nervous energy is constant and almost terrifying. It’s a very physical performance; the character always with a lit cigarette dangling from his lips, cannot sit still. As impressive as it is, and whether it was Ruffalo’s decision or that of the director, the sense of constant alert becomes exhausting to watch. A little downtime would have been appreciated. Not just by the audience, but by his wife.

As Maggie, Zoe Saldana is absolutely lovely to watch. Despite their troubles, which are great and unrelenting, she remains a force of peace and clarity. She doesn’t judge her husband. She simply moves forward because she has to. You have to wonder if Forbes’ real mother Peggy Woodford was as preternaturally calm in the face of all their daily drama. You also have to wonder whether her leaving (onscreen as well as in real life) was as selfless as it’s portrayed. Surely some part of her welcomed the logic and order and relative quiet of graduate school. And, finally, you have to wonder if Forbes and her sister resented their mother’s escape and saw it as, let’s face it, abandonment.

Infinitely Polar Bear may be an allusion to Cam, and Ruffalo is extraordinary to watch, but I was most moved by the performances of the two young actresses who play Amelia and Faith. Clearly, Forbes is telling a deeply personal story and she keeps it in the family by casting her own daughter Imogene Wolodarsky as her screen self. Wolodarsky, at just 12 years old, is fearless as the film’s de facto narrator, turning in a remarkably mature and nuanced performance. Equally impressive — and often heart-melting — is Ashley Aufderheide as her younger sister (based on Forbes’ real sibling China). The girls are survivors, somehow holding their own, even getting good grades, in their often horrifying home.

It is, at times, just that. Horrifying. Forbes doesn’t shy away from the fear inherent in living with mental illness. Even so, a couple behind me at the cinema found reason to laugh, loudly and with enthusiasm, at all of Cam’s quirks as if we were watching a sitcom. “Oh, there goes that whacky bipolar dad again,” I imagined them thinking. “What shenanigans will he get up to this time?” The thing is, Cam does do unusual things. But, the atmosphere is by no means comedic. Even at his best, he’s not in control. And, I couldn’t help thinking something bad, tragic even, might happen at any time. When Amelia insists on using the chain on their apartment door when he leaves, he sneers at her “What are you afraid of?” “Rapists,” she tells him. He tells her that the chain is useless and to prove his point, breaks down the door.

Forbes and her real family did live through the time her mother was away. And, despite everything, she and her sister thrived. They both attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard. Forbes is a prolific and celebrated screenwriter, producer and now director. Sister China is the lead singer for the eclectic group Pink Martini. Even mother Peggy succeeded, working for E.F. Hutton and Merrill Lynch before becoming the first African-American woman to start a growth equity investment management firm. Donald Cameron Forbes died of pancreatic cancer in 1998.

Infinitely Polar Bear was produced in 2014 and presented in limited release this summer. When I saw it this week at a small art house outside Boston, the audience was fairly empty. (Suffice it to say, many, many more patrons were enjoying Mission Impossible — Rogue Nation across town.) Growing up and growing strong with a bipolar dad may have seemed like an impossible mission. But, clearly, Forbes has moved forward. Her tribute to her father and their troubled times together is worth seeking out. It’s not always easy to watch but, all-in-all, it’s a good story.

 

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