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Infinitely Polar Bear

Sony Pictures // R // January 5, 2016
List Price: $26.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted December 30, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Writer/director Maya Forbes clearly understands and appreciates the enormity of bipolar disorder: the havoc it wreaks on both the afflicted person and their loved ones, especially any children they might have. Her semi-autobiographical film Infinitely Polar Bear fictionalizes the events that happened in her preteen life, a depiction of being raised -- along with her younger sister -- by a father with the condition when the circumstances demanded that he do so by himself for a prolonged period of time. Forbes approaches the situation from a candid, unrestrained perspective on the myriad complications that could arise, never shying away from opportunities to underscore the emotional complexity of what's going on. That ends up being both Infinitely Polar Bear's crucial asset and its persistent limitation, though, as the film shapes into a tumultuous drama with few chances for the pressure of the tension to be truly alleviated, guiding those watching through a potent but restricted portrait that struggles with brighter tones throughout.

Mark Ruffalo fills out the mind and body of Cam Stuart, a husband and father to two girls in Boston whom we see flying off the deep end in the initial, troubling scene of Infinitely Polar Bear. In one of his stretches of mania, he's lost his job and frightened his wife, Maggie (Zoe Saldana), and daughters Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide), forcing Cam to recover and live in a halfway house while his wife works a crummy job to pay the bills at a rent-controlled apartment. Desperate to change her living situation, Maggie applies to several prestigious business schools, eventually being admitted into one in New York, putting her in a tough predicament with her children. She brainstorms an unconventional, risky plan: for Cam to stay in Massachusetts with the girls and raise them in their apartment while their mother attends school for a year and a half, keeping them in their normal surroundings and giving him more structure and purpose amid a trying period in his life. Reluctantly, with concerns about the responsibility and his role as a man in this scenario, he accepts.

Cam's downbeat self-regard and unstable behavior are the driving forces of Infinitely Polar Bear, as writer/director Maya Forbes offers periodic glimpses into their turbulent lives over the course of those eighteen months, often jumping between seasons for effect. It's tough to watch amid heated arguments and volatile situations, amplified by the angered responses from Cam's frustrated children over his parental negligence and peculiar decisions. Down-to-earth moments are few and far between here, likely a consequence of the constrained runtime and of Forbes' dedication towards highlighting the heavier side of that dynamic between bipolar disorder and raising children. The candor displayed by Forbes, channeled through a credible performance from her daughter, Imogene Wolodarsky, as herself at a young age, enlivens these sequences of unfulfilled errands and chores, of embarrassment about the father's unfiltered attitude in public, and of the glimmers of uneasiness that the daughters feel when Cam becomes out of control.

Mark Ruffalo goes to a complicated headspace to flesh out this transcendent performance as Cam, reaching deep into the elements of the mental illness to embolden the character's manic episodes and borderline personality ticks. The kinetic detachment in Ruffalo's eyes and mannerisms effortlessly integrate with the brashness of Cam's decisions, which shapes him into a credible force of nature whom writer/director Forbes courageously frames as an unpredictable parental figure, strengthening the autobiographical backbone of Infinitely Polar Bear. From his impulsive departures out of the apartment at odd and inconvenient hours to the, uh, modifications he makes to the place while he's there, the film navigates through some rather disconcerting and out-there situations, all of which are constantly grounded by Ruffalo's realization of that persona. He's counterbalanced by the compassion and concern that radiates from Zoe Saldana as his wife, whose struggle to balance her own necessary ambition with what's right as a mother comes through loud and clear through the actress' raw expressiveness.

Thing is, Infinitely Polar Bear does approach some lightheartedness within the extreme moments of Cam's condition, rendering a film seasoned with endearing and uplifting tones that at times run counter to what's really going on within the Stuart clan. There isn't much focus on any middle-of-the-road, steady periods in their household, forcing the film to find levity within how the two daughters tolerate and adapt to the their father's upsetting highs and lows -- his abrasiveness and his acute enthusiasm -- something that's really tough to do. Sincerity appears in every frame, since writer/director Forbes still clearly strives to convey what the situations really felt like at the time, and she takes that complicated fusion of sensations and ties them together into an admirably feel-good depiction of weathering the struggles of bipolar disorder, underscored with an assuring message at the end. Infinitely Polar Bear comes across as a deeply personal film that wants to achieve more than that with its intentions, though.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

The photography in Infinitely Polar Bear is a frank and lucid as the material contained within, something that Sony's 1.78:1-framed, 1080p AVC encode conveys with almost immaculate precision. The clarity in close-ups here is astounding, and there are numerous ones to be found as the camera searches for various expressions in the faces of Cam and his family, offering plentiful moments of brilliant HD clarity. Details in chain-link fences and in the natural textures of the outdoors are razor-sharp as well, while smoothly flowing through the apartment and other interior spots without any issues focusing on fine details. Colors are persistently accurate, exhibiting delightful skin tones and natural colors of foliage and pavement, and contrast remains impressively balanced to allow visibility of all details. The disc's only problem comes in certain black levels that appear light and/or bluish in tint, which may or may not be the intention of the vintage-leaning cinematography. Overall, Infinitely Polar Bear looks pretty fantastic.

What's most important in this 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is, of course, the dialogue, but there are other fine aural touches throughout the track that make this a satisfying, strong high-definition track. Objects thrown about in the apartment, the bashing in of a door, and the rumble of a worn-out and failing engine project some brisk, natural sound effects with a surprising amount of middle-range bass and clear, natural upper-end response. Atmospheric music and surround ambience offer occasional, forgettable moments of surround activity, but there's never any question of the naturalness of the sounds present. Verbal clarity is always top-notch, too, embracing the gruffness of Mark Ruffalo's delivery, the sharp attitude of the daughters, and the considerate tone of Zoe Saldana's voice. The track does exactly what it needs to, and it does it incredibly well. Subs are available in a wide range of languages: English (and SDH), Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Estonian, French, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak.

Special Features:

An Audio Commentary with Maya Forbes, Mark Ruffalo, and producer Wally Wolodarsky leads off the extras with an enlightening and relatively casual conversation, though the topics discussed are a tad heavy at times. On top of elaborating on the decisions about what should be shot on film, the practical locations, and about small productions elements like the use of an old Polaroid camera and getting someone to smoke for a scene, director Forbes also delves into the personal angle of her story at many points throughout the track, about the reality of the situations. The energy level stays low but inviting, and there are a lot of fun anecdotes throughout the track, from one delightful scene seeming like a one-scene play and Mark Ruffalo being decked out in a green outfit considering his roles in the Avengers films.

Also available in the extras is a Q&A at the L.A. Film Festival (10:26, 16x9 HD) that stays light and relatively on the surface with the content they discuss, though Maya Forbes discussing being a woman writer/director and the family aspect of the shoot can be interesting. There's also a cluster of four Deleted Scenes (4:06, 16x9 HD) available, as well as a Theatrical Trailer (2:17, 16x9 HD).

Final Thoughts:

Turning her lens towards a tough and personal subject, writer/director Maya Forbes uses her feature-length debut to bring a fictionalized account of her youth to the screen in Infinitely Polar Bear, the story of a father with bipolar disorder raising his two daughters as their mother attends business school. The frankness of what Forbes brings to life from her childhood and the rawness of the performance value, especially Mark Ruffalo's absorbing and complex turn as Cam Stuart, give the film a distinctly powerful energy as it shifts between tumultuous periods during that time. There's also a balancing act going on between lighter tones and the intensity of the subject matter, though, one which occasionally struggles with the seriousness of Forbes' perspective and what the film really wants to be about. The end result is an uneven but engaging blend of potent drama and tonal buoyancy revolving around mental illness and parenting. Sony's Blu-ray is a fine audiovisual presentation and arrives with a decent array of features, overall making the disc mildly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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