Infinitely Polar Bear is a modest but worthwhile film that brings us back to a semi-forgotten, not-so-innocent era — America in the 1970s, when kids were less supervised and parents let it all hang out. It was a time when a woman could leave her young daughters in the care of their bipolar dad, who was frequently off his meds and smoked like a chimney, and the neighbors' sole source of tongue wagging was the prospect of a man doing domestic chores.
Unlike The Ice Storm and other films that have implicitly chastised the parents of that era for their imperfections, this autobiographical directorial debut from Maya Forbes puts everything in context. It's not the portrait of a generation but of a single unique, surprisingly resilient family. As a depiction of mental illness, Infinitely Polar Bear doesn't fall into the trap of making mania seem consistently zany and adorable. But it does acknowledge that, under the right circumstances, the larger-than-life behavior of someone like Cameron Stuart (Mark Ruffalo) can be charming and comic. It's just that he more often lands in the wrong circumstances.
Cam is the descendant of a Boston Brahman family living in bohemian semi-squalor; his supercilious grandmother (Muriel Gould) holds the family fortune in her death grip. Maggie (Zoe Saldana) didn't see anything wrong with Cam when they married — after all, she points out, it was the '60s, when "everybody was having a breakdown." Another breakdown and a hospitalization later, Maggie faces facts: Cam will never be the family breadwinner. But to obtain a better life for her daughters, she needs an MBA, which means attending school in New York and leaving Cam with the kids in Boston.
Saldana does graceful work as a loving mom making hard choices. But the heart of the film is the rambunctious family unit formed by Cam, 10-year-old Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky, Forbes' daughter) and her younger sister, Faith (Ashley Aufderheide). Educated at the best schools and vain of his heritage, Cam often acts like a bright, bratty kid doing a James Stewart impersonation; unable to respect him as an authority figure, his daughters instead attempt to out-brat him. At times, his needy, volatile behavior terrifies them. But they never forget his good heart or his good cooking — and neither does the film.
Forbes has loosely structured her memoiristic account of this unusual year, using Super 8 montages to convey the passage of time and the flavor of the era. She doesn't follow Amelia closely enough to craft a coming-of-age narrative; to the extent that anyone grows up here, it's Cam, who learns to be less scared of his family responsibilities. This role is right in Ruffalo's wheelhouse; his intensity often has a manic edge. Less expected — but welcome — is the naturalness of the two young actors, who play the kids as loud, bossy, boisterous and believable. ("Totally polar bear" is Faith's rendering of her father's diagnosis.)
The authenticity of the proceedings might remind viewers of Boyhood. While that film offered progression and a broader perspective on family history, this one encapsulates one phase of such a history and then ends. Viewers in search of catharsis or resolution won't find them here. But Infinitely Polar Bear is a vivid snapshot of one family surviving in a state of chaotic, affectionate imperfection — and of a time when kids "raising themselves" was seen not as neglect but as normal.