Infinitely Polar Bear

Posted on June 25, 2015 at 5:36 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Family tension
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 19, 2015
Date Released to DVD: January 4, 2016 ASIN: B016UTP3V0

“Infinitely Polar Bear” is the term a young girl uses in this film for bipolar disorder, the mental illness that her father struggled with as he cared for his daughters. It indicates that this sensitive, touching story reflects the perspective of the children who lived with him.

Writer/director Maya Forbes based the film on her family’s story, when she and her sister lived with their father near their school in Boston in the 1970’s so that their mother could attend an MBA program in New York.

Because their father could not work, and because his wealthy family would not give them enough money to live on, the only way their mother could support them was to get a business degree, but she wanted the girls to stay in their home and school.  And so, Cam (Mark Ruffalo), who had been living alone, moves into the family apartment, and Maggie (Zoe Saldana) lives in New York during the week and comes home on weekends.  And the girls, Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky, Forbes’ daughter) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) spend their weeks with a man who loves them very much but who fills the apartment with chaos and clutter, chain-smokes, drinks, and, worst of all, is SO embarrassing.

Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures Classics
Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures Classics

There is something both perceptive in presenting embarrassment as their primary reaction.  Children naturally see the world in terms of how it affects them, and school-age children are first discovering the way that they are judged by their peers and are therefore excruciatingly sensitive to it, and can become near-frantic about blending in.  But it is reassuring as well.  The girls know that both of their parents love them very much.

Forbes presents the story with enormous insight and compassion for each member of the family.  The young actresses who play the two girls are wonderfully natural.  Saldana gives a performance of endless grace.  And Ruffalo manages to make Cam a complete and complex character, unlike the typical movie portrayal of mental illness as a bundle of cute quirks or sociopathic fury.  There is nothing as carelessly lofty as the Boston upper class.  While Cam knows their era is ending and would not want it to continue, it persists in his speech and carriage and in occasional flashes of a sense of entitlement.  He impulsively decides to take his daughters on a tour of his family’s mansion, even though it is now owned by someone else, who reasonably thinks that no one, even former owners, should be allowed to enter without an invitation.  He visits his grandmother, who still controls the family money, and has dinner with his parents (Keir Dullea and Beth Dixon, nailing the effete accents, snobbery, and helplessness).  He tinkers with a dozen projects and stays up all night creating a mermaid costume.  And he self-medicates with chain-smoking and constant sips of beer.  Ruffalo plays Cam not as a mentally ill man but as a man who has a mental illness, along with a lot of other qualities, including a deep love for his wife and children.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, themes of mental illness, smoking, drinking, drugs, and family dysfunction.

Family discussion: Do you agree with the decision made by the parents about leaving the girls with Cam?  How have ideas about mental illness changed since the era of this film?  How does the writer/director, who based the story on her own life, feel about her parents?

If you like this, try: “Donnie Darko,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “Silver Linings Playbook”

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Based on a true story Disabilities and Different Abilities DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Family Issues
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