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Family flop

If Maya Forbes were to tell us the story of “Infinitely Polar Bear” over coffee and blueberry muffins, we would no doubt be riveted and nothing but sympathetic. That’s because we’d be relieved to no small degree that she had survived such a harrowing childhood intact.

I found watching her realistic film of her presumed childhood, on the other hand, as unpleasant as anything I’ve had to do in a movie theater in a long time.

Let me, then, hurry to tell you that mine seems to be a minority view here. If you go to the Rotten Tomatoes website, you’ll find a very favorable rating and several critics referring to the movie’s “sweetness of tone” or throwing around adjectives like “irresistible.” You’ll even find people calling it a “feel-good movie.”

I felt awful watching it until the end. Two-thirds of it was like watching unintentional, slow-motion child-abuse – not the “call the cops, NOW” kind, but the sweet, indulgent, upscale liberal kind where people understand what’s wrong with everyone and wouldn’t dream of interfering. It was, to me, quite literally unwatchable. The only reason I stuck around to the end to discover that it becomes tolerable in its final 15 minutes is that I was watching the film for professional reasons. Had I wandered into the theater five minutes in as a simple audience member, I’d have been out of the theater at the 45-minute point at the latest. I’d never have made it to the end.

This is Forbes’ apparently autobiographical film about growing up with a little sister both cared for by a bipolar father. He’s played by Mark Ruffalo. Zoe Saldana plays his wife and the mother of the two girls.

In the interests of fairness (look, I’m breaking my back to be fair to this thing, given its fans), the acting in the movie is uniformly powerful. That, in fact, is what makes it so hideously difficult to watch.

Ruffalo is terrific as the bipolar father (they used to call it “manic-depressive” in 1978 when the film is set). Saldana is as affecting as she’s ever been on film. Especially endearing are the two girls – Imogene Wolodarsky as the older daughter and Ashley Aufderheide as the younger. These are wonderful performances by children. (Wolodarsky is writer/director Forbes’ daughter.)

Bipolar disorder is a terrible struggle affecting many, all of whom deserve our sympathy a hundred times over. You’re watching a loving and devoted father who couldn’t possibly intend less malice toward his two completely lovable daughters. But he is so often so far away from control of himself that his parenthood seemed to me, a complete and total affliction plain and simple.

To me, the situation in this movie was clinical, not dramatic.

Because he carries so much chaos within him, he is always losing jobs. What we’re seeing happens to the Boston family when the wife and mother feels compelled to change the family’s fortune and go to law school in New York, while her family remains in Boston.

Their lives in Boston are what we’re watching. To the degree that it’s watchable at all, the movie seems to want to fall into the ancient film template, “bringing up father,” i.e. a father so out of it the kids are the family’s force for stability and maturity.

But I’m sorry, I found the intense realism of it so agonizing to watch most of the time that every few minutes I asked myself the worst possible question at a movie like this: “Why the devil am I watching this movie? I’m not this family’s neighbor or therapist.”

One possible answer, of course, is “to learn about lives you don’t know.” But nothing in this film conveyed any kind of pain that was new. So in my case, the only reason I was watching this is that it was my job. In your case, be forewarned. And by all means, know how many people want you to know about the film’s “sweetness of tone” and its capacity, no less, to make you “feel good.”

Heaven forgive me, but I won’t be one of them.


Infinitely polar bear

1.5 stars

Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Ashley Aufderheide, Imogone Wolodarsky, Keir Dullea

Director: Maya Forbes

Running time: 90 minutes

Rating: R for language

The Lowdown: Two young daughters are raised in Boston by a bipolar father while their mother goes to Columbia in New York City.

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