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With Mark Ruffalo moonlighting as a superhero these days, it’s easy to forget he’s one of the best actors currently working. Infinitely Polar Bear, written and directed by newcomer Maya Forbes, not only serves as a reminder of Ruffalo’s chops, it’s arguably his finest performance to date. He plays Cameron, a bipolar father of two, who is forced to solely care for the kids when his estranged wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) goes to graduate school hoping to improve the family’s financial situation.

So you’ve got a bipolar man, barely able to keep himself together, forced to take care of two young girls when their African-American mom goes away hoping to get a white-collar job… in 1978 Boston. Yes, Infinitely Polar Bear is weighty with issues of race, economics, and gender, but Forbes deals with them carefully and thoughtfully in a hilarious, heartwarming film.

Besides being a period piece about a biracial family, the biggest thing Infinitely Polar Bear does to truly distinguish itself is present an impossible problem. Cameron and Maggie are poor, mostly because Cameron’s mental health prevents him from working. That makes Maggie the breadwinner, but she doesn’t have the education to make enough money to support everyone. So, when the opportunity to get that job presents itself in the form of a scholarship, she’s forced to either leave her kids with the unstable Cameron, hoping it’ll eventually pay off, or stay with them and be a parent. It’s a complicated moral dilemma and at every turn in the film, Forbes avoids pressuring the audience into one specific reaction.

Much of the conflict comes out of the highs and lows of Ruffalo’s masterful performance. When an actor is that incredible, however, everyone else has to step up their game to make it work. Ruffalo’s co-stars do just that.  As his hard working but compromised wife, Zoe Saldana is perfectly understated. The character’s decision to leave her family behind for their betterment kicks the film in motion and the way she plays a woman we half hate for leaving, but love for her foresight, is beautifully balanced.

Then there are the two kids, played by newcomers Imogene Wolodarsky (the director’s daughter) and Ashley Aufderheide. Each girl carries themselves with a confident, yet innocent, realism. They’re absolutely entrancing. We can fully sympathize with the reasons Mom would do something so drastic for them, and how deep their father’s love runs.

Another thing the film does very well is deal with serious mental illness. Cameron is never treated as goofy, even when riding a bicycle naked, or too serious, as when he leaves his daughters home alone. In every situation, Forbes leaves room for humor as well as sadness, and it creates a perfectly balanced tone. That, coupled with some goosebump inducing uses of slow-motion and music, give the film that extra something that makes it so special.

Infinitely Polar Bear presents complicated issues with confidence and candor. It’ll surely end up being on of the best films of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

/Film rating: 9 out of 10

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About the Author

Germain graduated NYU's Tisch School of the Arts Cinema Studies program in 2002 and won back to back First Place awards for film criticism from the New York State Associated Press in 2006 and 2007.

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