Maya Forbes, a television writer/producer who branched out onto the big screen by co-authoring the screenplays for Monsters vs. Aliens and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, has tackled a deeply personal story for her debut as writer/director, Infinitely Polar Bear, which takes its title from a response her father once wrote on a hospital admission form asking for a diagnosis of his condition.
Drawing from her experience growing up in Cambridge as the older of two biracial sisters—the children of a bipolar Boston Brahmin and his long-suffering African-American wife—Forbes centers the film on Amelia Stuart, her surrogate in this quasi-autobiographical drama. She’s wonderfully played by a first-time actress, 11-year-old Imogene Wolodarsky, who just happens to be Forbes’ talented daughter. Obviously, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
During a moment alone with her mother, Maggie (Zoe Saldana, who charms despite limited screen time), Amelia says, “I don’t think I’m black. I look white.” And compared to Faith (novice Ashley Aufderheide, another natural), her younger sister who more closely resembles their mother, the light-skinned, straight-haired girl has a point. The conversation that follows shows her wrestling with an outside world that’s telling her in myriad ways that her race matters; so is Maggie, who faces difficulty as a black woman trying to find a corporate job in Boston during the late ’70s.
Maggie already has her hands full worrying about providing a future for her daughters when her husband Cam (Mark Ruffalo, delivering great work in a tricky role) experiences a mental breakdown in the film’s opening scene, manically running about the family’s suburban front yard, barely covered in a Speedo. The couple first met in 1967 while they were both working at WGBH, and at the time, Maggie saw nothing terribly unusual in his idiosyncrasies; it was the late ’60s, and odd behavior was an acceptable norm. But a decade later, with Cam unable to hold down a job, Maggie’s affection for him pales in comparison to her fear for their family’s survival.
After Cam is hospitalized, Maggie brings their daughters to visit him. Heavily medicated, he lumbers toward them, with Faith noting how he’s grown fat from the Lithium. While he briefly perks up, the drugs have turned him into a shell of the man they love. Nevertheless, this is Cam’s—and Ruffalo’s—film, and the episodic structure Forbes weaves through a handful of seasons serves as an affectionate tribute to the ups and downs of her own troubled but loving father, who died in 1998.
While Cam recovers in a halfway house, the cash-strapped Maggie is forced to move the family into a small apartment. (With art imitating life, the film’s limited budget required Providence to stand in—beautifully—for the Cambridge of old.) In an effort to avoid poverty, Maggie decides to get her MBA, with an eye toward attending Harvard. Alas, it’s Columbia that accepts her into an 18-month program, so she hatches a plan that Cam’s overprotective, blue-blood parents (Beth Dixon and Keir Dullea) wildly disagree with. But then, they’re reluctant to provide more than a minimum of financial support for their broke and broken son.
Maggie proposes she spend weekdays studying in Manhattan, with return trips to the Bay State on weekends—if Cam agrees to move into her apartment with his daughters, taking on the responsibility of feeding them (he’s a fantastic cook), clothing them (he sews a phenomenal flamenco dress for Faith) and transporting them to and from public school. In other words, Cam must be a father. Of course, his capricious nature forces Amelia and Faith into much of the parenting as he alternately goes off his meds and resumes drinking. But throughout these frequently funny (and sometimes frightening) episodes, this deeply flawed man emerges as a positive influence on his girls, who remain grateful for who they are and what they have.
And while Maggie eventually graduates, the sad fact is her Boston employment opportunities are still limited as a woman of color—and the ugly busing crisis from earlier in the decade remains close in the rearview mirror. Frustrated, she sums up the residual racism her husband fails to see, pointedly telling him: “When white people live in squalor, you’re eccentric; when black people live in squalor, believe me, no one’s charmed.”
Thankfully, nothing’s ever quite so black-and-white in Infinitely Polar Bear, which treats issues of race, mental illness and family dysfunction with nuance. Forbes understands that children are resilient; as she reminds us with her heartfelt family remembrance, it’s possible to emerge from painful experiences not only stronger, but also smiling.
Infinitely Polar Bear ***
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Imogene Wolodarsky, Ashley Aufderheide, Beth Dixon and Keir Dullea. Written and directed by Maya Forbes. At Boston Common, Kendall Square and in the suburbs.