Love is a complicated emotion.
On the one hand, it is everything the Bible says it is – patient, gentle, kind, protective, trusting, hopeful – and yet for all those unarguably positive characteristics, its outworking can also be angry, argumentative, regretful, mournful, frustrating.
You see? Not an easy thing to grapple with at all.
And pretty much every one of those aspects of love, both the deliriously good and the irritatingly bad, are on full, glorious, all too human display in Maya Forbes’ Infinitely Polar Bear, a deeply intimate, richly warm portrayal of a family in 1970s Boston who undeniably care for each other but face a significant number of hurdles in living that out.
The most significant hurdle of all is the manic depression, now known as bipolar disorder, of the father of the family Cam Stuart (Mark Ruffalo in potently affecting form) – the title of the movie is lifted from his youngest daughter Faith’s (Ashley Aufderheide) description of her dad’s illness as something to do with “polar bears” – who veers between uplifting highs and dark lows, all of which naturally have an effect on his family.
So unpredictable are his swings between the two states – the movie starts with him having another of his breakdowns dressed in red Speedos and riding a bike, asserting that to be a man he must be allowed to roam free, regardless of consequences – that his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) is finally forced to separate from him, taking the girls to live in a rent-controlled apartment while he works out his issues, first in a mental hospital and then a halfway house.
Deeply in love with Cam, who she describes to her eldest daughter Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky), her decision is not an easy one nor a cleanly-executed one with Cam remaining very much of the girls’ lives, despite his often over-talkative, eccentric behaviour.
He becomes even more closely re-involved with his tight knit but often exasperated family when Maggie decides she needs to go to business school at Columbia University in New York if she’s to have any chance of creating a viable, meaningful future for her and her daughters, and asks Cam to step in and look after them while she’s away during the week.
Initially fearful of the routine – as he cites an ever-lengthening list of things he will need to attend on his own such as laundry, grocery shopping and getting the girls to and from school he goes from animatedly enthusiastic to distinctly nervous – he largely embraces the chance to remain close to his daughters and keep their family reasonably intact.
Of course there is still a degree of estrangement between he and Maggie but theirs is largely an affectionate relationship, one based on love and respect but which for now at least, doesn’t involve successfully living together.
What it does involve though is being there for their daughters who grow close to their father despite his sometimes erratic behaviour – at one point he goes on an all night alcohol-fuelled bender, leaving them sleeping alone in the family’s apartment – which leaves them alternately giddy with happiness and delight, and furiously helpless.
They are forced to grow up quickly but then so is Cam, who though he never fully recovers from his illness – one of the great strengths of Maya Forbes’ script and her expert direction is that eschews schmaltzy happy endings and neat solutions for gritty, unfinished authentic reality – grows into his role as a father, realising as he quietly tells Maggie one night that he’s a far better dad than he ever was a husband.
Infinitely Polar Bear then is a film about the trials and tribulations, the ups and the downs, the laughing and the crying, the messy, flawed outworking of love (there’s that word again) , everything that happens, good and bad, when you place four disparate human beings together and ask them to be a family.
That they want to be one is beyond dispute; whether they can be though is another thing entirely and Forbes doesn’t flinch from being starkly realistic about the chances of Cam being a good dad or reuniting in the way he wants to with Maggie.
What gives this film extra charm is that for all the dark, scary, unpredictable moments, there are plenty of times when life is just about damn well perfect, where there’s ice cream and laughter and fun, and yes, love.
Grappling with the sort of challenges that don’t confront their friends, Amelia and Faith come to appreciate that they must give as much as they take in this most unusual and yet utterly typical of families, the understanding dawning that in the midst of all the chaos and unpredictability is the certainty their father is a good man and that he loves them.
And that really is what Infinitely Polar Bear boils down to; an exploration of what it means when love isn’t some cheerful, cheesily-rhymed ditty in a greeting card or a throwaway line in a rom-com but real life in all its complexity, simple moments, heartache and happiness.
That Cam’s bipolar disorder complicates things isn’t in dispute but at the end of the day life for Cam, Maggie, Amelia and Faith is no more or less worse or better than what anyone else must contend with every day of their lives.
It’s this universality of experience that imbues Infinitely Polar Bear, which makes beautiful use of home movie footage to reinforce the normalcy of their extraordinary family life, so special and so deeply affecting, reminding you constantly that love is never a straightforward proposition and that once we understood that, we’ll be all the better for it.