Infinitely Polar Bear


            This is probably the best performance yet by Mark Ruffalo, but it will likely go unnoticed, because it's so small-scope.  “Infinitely Polar Bear” is the story of one little family:  Dad, Cameron (Ruffalo), Mom, Maggie (Zoe Saldana), and their daughters, Amelia (Imogne Wolodarsky), and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide).  They live in Boston, where Cameron's family is old money, but somehow he's been the outcast underperformer of the family, so they're poor.  Cameron is bi-polar, and he's also got a hair-trigger temper, which will set him off quickly toward his less appealing side.  But even in his manic mode, he's sometimes hard to take:  he'll run around outside in his red underwear, wanting everyone to romp through the woods with him and enjoy nature, forget school.  Actually, that's what he did:  dropped out from both Exeter and Harvard.  So he's not stupid;  he's just imprisoned by his own lamentable condition, which threatens to veer out of control at any moment.

            One time Maggie gets so concerned for their daughters' safety that she has Cameron sent away to a psychiatric facility, but of course what they mostly do is give him lithium, so that when the girls come to see him, he's uncharacteristically unresponsive.  Cameron hasn't been able to hold on to a job for a long time, and Maggie's menial job as a library assistant is going nowhere, so she decides she just has to try to further her career, even if it's inconvenient to everyone else, if for no other reason than to be able to afford good (private) schools for her daughters.  So once Cameron is released from the institution, Maggie decides that she's going to get her M.B.A.----at Columbia University in New York City.  Yes, it's far enough away from Boston that she only comes home on the weekends.  And even then, she hasn't fully re-integrated herself into her marriage with Cameron.  But she is happy for him to keep the kids while she's off studying. 

            Cameron's fatherhood skills are unique, to say the least.  He makes great crepes.  He can fix almost anything.  He loves to take his daughters on spontaneous nature tours.  But the apartment is always a mess;  filled with unifinished projects.  He rants at them for just being kids, and they soon realize they're going to have to take care of themselves a lot.  He doesn't help them with their homework.  He's always repairing their (very) old car.  Sometimes he says he just can't stand it, he has to go be with adults, so he slams the door and drinks shots at the neighborhood bar and comes home drunk.  But even he realizes that's a self-indulgence he can't afford, if he's going to keep the kids.  He loves them, but sometimes he doesn't know what to do with them.  And they love him, but sometimes they're exasperated by his inconsistency, especially when Mom isn't around to smooth out his rough edges.

            Mark Ruffalo is just outstanding in his hyperkinetic portrayal, but unfortunately his vitriolic manic-depression is not very charming..  Part of us wants to root for him, and another part wants to call in Child Protective Services.  Maggie's character is similarly ambivalent, and her bailing out really hasn't solved anything, either.  Nor does that make her an idyllic Mom.  So that leaves us rooting for the kids, who seem to be pretty resilient, but they're having to grow up faster than they should, and that's not their fault.  In a way, the family staying together in any sense is a heartwarming outcome, but with all the accompanying trauma, the victory is pyrrhic, at best.


Questions For Discussion:

1)                  Maggie is adamant about telling her daughter Amelia that she's black, despite the fact that her Dad is white, and she looks white.  Because her mother is black, she's black. Period.  Do you agree?

2)                  Is there someone close to you who is bipolar, and how has that affected the family dynamics?

3)                  Should families stay together regardless of circumstances, or are there times when breaking up a family is preferable for the children? 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Supply Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Kaufman, Texas