At some point, all kids go from worshipping their parents to finding the things they do in public utterly mortifying. As little girls growing up in Boston in the late ’70s, sisters Amelia and Faith (Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide) adore their father, Cameron (Mark Ruffalo), a chain-smoking charmer who’s always up for a picnic or a bike ride or breakfast for dinner. But the embarrassing moments, when they come, aren’t just sitcom-style ugh, Dad, stop! shenanigans. Cam is bipolar, and after a manic episode involving a red Speedo and a spark plug gets him institutionalized, everyone is forced to acknowledge that his issues are more than eccentricities.
Which is why it sounds like a spectacularly bad plan when he is released from a halfway house and his long-suffering wife, Maggie (Zoe Saldana), having landed a scholarship at Columbia, asks him to take on the girls full-time for 18 months while she earns her M.B.A. in New York City. But the doctors agree that Cam functions better when he has routines and responsibilities—and the family’s meager finances, already hanging by the frayed threads of a wealthy great-grandmother’s whims, don’t really allow for other options. So Maggie sets off, promising to take the bus home every weekend. And Cam and his girls are left to navigate all the bedtimes, mealtimes, and everyday messes in between.
Infinitely Polar Bear—the title is a malaprop of Cam’s condition—is based on writer-director Maya Forbes’ own life (Wolodarsky, who plays her, is also her daughter). Which may be why there’s a certain gentleness to Ruffalo’s portrayal: He’s a sweet but strident man who doesn’t know how to say no to cigarettes and stories and projects (skittish dogs, busted cars, broken crockery) he can’t finish. The film doesn’t sidestep the effects of real mental illness, but its dappled cinematography and jaunty oldies soundtrack can feel like a misplaced attempt to soften it. Still, as a love letter to the binding, tangled ties of family and fatherhood, Infinitely lingers. B+