Infinitely Polar Bear

by Jake Mulligan

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday June 19, 2015

A scene from 'Infinitely Polar Bear'
A scene from 'Infinitely Polar Bear'  (Source:Sundance Institute)

The 8mm home movies that open "Infinitely Polar Bear" are meant to instill a feeling of authenticity. They exist to convince us that Cam (Mark Ruffalo), Maggie (Zoe Saldana), and their daughters Amelia and Faith are a real family. They're suppose to convince us we're in the '70s (despite a consistent lack of period-appropriate detail, and despite the 2000s-era digital photography). And they're suppose to convince us that we're in Cambridge, where the movie is set (though the absence of urban bustle betrays that the film was shot out of state.) Director Maya Forbes is using the footage to try and suggest that this film is an unvarnished, unadorned portrait of American family life. It isn't.

Cam comes from one of the city's richest families, but he's been cut off -- they pay his rent, and he struggles to pay for everything else. Maybe they treat him this way because he never found a career. Maybe it's because his manic-depressive disorder has always maintained a hold on his life. Or maybe it's because his wife isn't white. Whatever the reason, they've spurned him, leaving Maggie to provide for the family by earning an MBA. That leaves the permanently immature Cam home alone with the kids -- all three of them unsure of who's suppose to be responsible for whom.

From that setup we get a series of disconnected interludes, each one paying minimal lip service to a different family struggle. The girls get stuck at an unimpressive public school (which we then never see on screen). Or they make efforts to get Cam to quit drinking and smoking (which has rarely proven itself to be an issue prior to their campaigning about it). Then references are made to the way that racism has alienated Maggie from Boston workplaces and the girls from their peers (said repression is discussed but once or twice, in short asides). Forbes seems to think that haphazardly loading all these subplots and social issues into the oven will result in a well-baked meal. Instead, she starts a fire.

The main factor throwing the recipe off-balance is perspective. What's uniting all these narrative strands is one central obsession: Money. Everything from alcoholism to racism is discussed in light of the way that it affects this one family's ability to earn a living at a middle-class level or higher. Cam and his family are obsessed, at their relatives behest, with escaping their destitute station in life -- so when it's treated as a triumph once they do, it's an aesthetic validation of the way the wealthy side of the family had been berating them for their financial standing (which, it is clear, was the result of societal ills more than it was a personal failing). The happy ending is a blissful life full of massive inheritances. And thus poverty is treated not as a societal problem itself, but as an opponent to be defeated, and then forgotten. That's the very definition of privilege. It's as if these issues don't exist beyond Cam's living room -- and the presumption seems to be they'll disappear from the world once this family escapes them.

That conclusion begets a new question: Shouldn't a memoir be entitled to a narrow perspective? Numerous details from the film -- right down to the title, which is taken from a mispronunciation of "bipolar disorder" -- are clearly ripped from the pages of Forbes' diary. But the failures of craftsmanship (the falseness of the setting, the slapdash treatment of the many sociological topics) undoes all the authenticity, even of the 8mm segments. This may be based on a true story, but the film itself never once succeeds in evoking real experience.