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Infinitely Polar Bear | Review

One Flew Over the Housing Project: Forbes Relates Childhood Memories in Debut

infinitely_polar_bear_posterScreenwriter Maya Forbes makes her directorial debut with Infinitely Polar Bear, an exploration of a specific and potentially tumultuous period from her youth. Potentially because she paints these memories over with a glossy lamination, and despite some seriously committed performances, the end result feels a bit too removed from reality to feel as emotionally potent or resonant as one would hope.

In 1978 Cambridge, Massachusetts, Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and her younger sister Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) have grown up with caring parents under problematic circumstances. Manic depressive father, Cameron (Mark Ruffalo) is unable to hold down a job, leaving mother Maggie (Zoe Saldana) to take care of most things on her own. Following a nervous breakdown and brief institutionalization, Cameron and Maggie separate. However, Maggie’s inability to find a decent job leads her to desperate measures so she can provide a proper education for her children outside of the less than satisfactory public school system. She score admission and a scholarship to Columbia Business School, and can obtain a degree in eighteen months. But this means she’ll have to leave the girls behind with Cameron, who seems to have trouble keeping on top of taking his lithium. As Maggie moves off to pursue her degree, returning every weekend be with her kids, Amelia and Faith share an intriguing period of time with their well-meaning but sometimes off kilter dad.

One gets the sense that Forbes wanted to keep a degree of impartiality, but instead the film feels like something necessitating a more objective hand. Here and there poignant moments skirt across the screen, but the non-traditional upbringing administered by the sometimes troubled parents here feels loving and overall functional (in comparison to the cinematic childhoods we’re so used to seeing). That’s not meant as a detraction, per se, but the film often feels like it would be more particularly effective for those whose lives were actually involved.

Filmmakers exploring their own childhoods tend to create films on either end of the tonal spectrum. On one end is something like Infinitely Polar Bear, a potentially potent examination of mental illness from the perspective of the precocious children dulled down by a filmmaker’s wish to avoid being inflammatory. On the other, let’s throw in Eva Ionesco’s My Little Princess (2011) as representative of the other more sensationalized product, recreating her exploitation at the hands of her famous photographer mother. Both examples include mentally unstable parents whose behaviors have detrimental effects on children, but Forbes doesn’t want to show the real fissures, instead filming scars painted over with lavish tattoos.

The child performers are both incredibly astute, particularly the frustrated elder daughter played by Imogene Wolodarsky. And yet, too often, we’re given moments of comedic quips, played too often and too broadly. Mark Ruffalo gives a very engaged performance, though he’s also used too often for cutesy dodging of the real issues at hand. Likewise a cloying score from Theodore Shapiro tries to manhandle our emotional response too swiftly, especially in moments requiring a bit more complexity to really work.

Passing mention is made of the girls’ grappling with societal acknowledgement of their mixed race, perhaps appropriate considering their age and their control of the narrative. Yet, despite showing their mother’s difficulties scoring a position in the white boy’s Boston clubs (resulting in a ridiculous outburst from Ruffalo in scene showing there’s apparently no consequence for instigating physical violence), one wishes Forbes had managed to include something more profound than these standards. Saldana makes for a calm foil to Ruffalo’s manic behaviors, and it would have been nice to see more shared screen time with the two performers.

Reviewed on June 14 at the 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival – Buzz. 90 Min.

★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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