In “Southpaw,” Fuqua and Gyllenhaal Knock Themselves Out

Southpaw

Southpaw (Antoine Fuqua, 2015)

I can pinpoint the exact moment that this dreary film lost me. A terrible tragedy occurs towards the end of Act I – something that, in screenwriting terms is called a “plot point” or “inciting incident” – and all I could think was, “Really? You did that?” From then on, I was unable to pay attention to anything but the architecture of the script – written by Kurt Sutter, who did such fine work on “Sons of Anarchy” (and, full confession, the uncle of a former student of mine who will now probably never speak to me again) – rather than the story. The overtly manipulative direction by Antoine Fuqua – whose one near-masterpiece remains Training Day (but keep in mind that he also gave us The Equalizer and Olympus Has Fallen) – does not help. And try as he might, Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler) – all tough sinew and crazy eyes, straining under the weight of the melodrama – can’t save the picture. To make matters worse, if you’re here for the boxing, it’s not even engaging on that level.

Still, some good people signed on for the movie. We’ve got Rachel McAdams (About Time) – wasted – Naomie Harris (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) – wasted – and Forest Whitaker (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) – less wasted (but Hollywood is usually crueller to its female characters). Whitaker is also one of the producers (a role he plays a lot these days, including on the terrific Fruitvale Station). The participation of these otherwise talented actors matters not (would that the women had real parts!). At every point of the film, we feel the filmmakers raising the stakes, yet the stakes ultimately remain a construct, rather than a reality. Telegraphing the emotions we should be feeling through the soggy score by late film composer James Horner (I really feel like a jerk for not liking it more – sorry, James!) only serves to underline the paucity of genuine sentiment on the screen. Nothing is believable and nothing counts. It’s time for a rematch.

“Mr. Holmes” Misses His Mark

Mr Holmes

Mr. Holmes (Bill Condon, 2015)

On a recent episode of WNYC’s Studio 360, actor Ian McKellen (best known, to mainstream audiences, for his roles as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings series and Magneto in the X-Men films, but also a very accomplished stage actor) stated that, ever since working with director Bill Condon on Gods and Monsters, he has always been prepared to say “yes” to anything that Condon might propose. And so we now find him starring as an aged (over 90!) Sherlock Holmes in the director’s new project. One can certainly understand McKellen’s attraction to the part – it’s such an iconic character, and what actor wouldn’t relish the opportunity to portray Holmes as his vaunted powers of deduction are fading? – and he most certainly does shine. It’s a shame that the movie, itself, however, is not better. Perhaps it’s Condon’s experience working on the final two Twilight films that have reduced his appreciation for complexity, or maybe the terrific Gods and Monsters was a one-off. Who knows? What we do know is that while Mr. Holmes offers a wonderful showcase for McKellen, it doesn’t offer much else.

Which is too bad, as the premise offers such promise. We meet Holmes in 1947, as he returns from a trip to Japan, where he had hoped to discover a cure for his memory loss. Imagine Holmes – the great detective – unable to hold on to the simplest of details, such as the names of the people he knows! He returns to his estate, to which he retired after World War I, after a tragic end to what would be his final case left him traumatized. Now he just takes cares of his bees, and is a burden to his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro – played by the usually reliable Laura Linney (Hyde Park on Hudson), who here, unlike her co-star, does not, sadly, shine – who wishes she didn’t have to play nursemaid on her meager salary. But she has a young son – played by the excellent newcomer Milo Parker – and the boy’s interest in what the famous, if decrepit, sleuth has to teach him provides a way in (or back) into Holmes’s memories, allowing the old man to finally solve the one mystery that eluded him. As I said, it’s a great premise.

Unfortunately, the story is told in an extremely heavy-handed fashion, with the director constantly underlining every single emotional beat. The flashbacks are clunky, and we see the truth of the failed case long before Holmes does. What works, however, is the marvelous interplay between the detective and his apprentice, and some great surprises lurk inside that storyline. I wouldn’t call it a complete wash, then – and fans of McKellen should enjoy – but it so often painfully misses its mark that we can’t help but regret the film that might have been.

Got Marvel Malaise? Clever “Ant-Man” Offers Cure for What Ails You

Ant-Man Peña

Ant-Man (Peyton Reed, 2015)

Tired of big, bombastic studio superhero films such as Avengers: Age of Ultron? That movie may have grossed over $1,000,000,000 at the world box office, but I, for one, was bored silly. The genre is tired. How many times can the world be almost destroyed, and then saved at the last minute, before audiences across the globe demand a different story? Time will tell. For now, however, we can take heart that the folks at Marvel occasionally come out with gems like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man that have as much fun subverting the genre as playing into it. True, some of the self-serious films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier rise far above the rest, as well, but the refreshing cheekiness of Marvel’s new pint-sized hero is a much-needed breath of fresh air in a universe of stale sameness.

That’s not to say that Ant-Man exists outside of the Marvel Universe. Au contraire; all of these stories are linked. We start in 1989, where Michael Douglas (Behind the Candelabra) – as Hank Pym, inventor of an-as-yet-mysterious technology (to play a big role later in the movie) – walks out of a meeting with Howard Stark (father of Iron Man‘s Tony Stark), declaring that his life’s work will never be used by the military (a sure sign, of course, that come the start of the main story, someone will have made sure that it will). Flash-forward 26 years to our present, and we meet Paul Rudd (This Is 40) as Scott Lang, a convicted cyber-hacker on his last day in prison. Michael Peña (Cesar Chavez), as his former cellmate Luis, greets him at the gates and takes him back to an apartment where he and two other ex-cons try to bring him in on another score. Scott’s have none of it, as he wants to rebuild his life and reconnect with his young daughter. It’s tough to get a job as a convicted felon, however, and things look bleak. So far, so boring. Rudd is a charismatic screen presence, and Peña is fun, but other than the fact that our main character is a crook, this looks and sounds fairly conventional.

Meanwhile, back at Pym Industries, Corey Stoll (Peter Russo in Season 1 of “House of Cards“) – as Daren Cross, Hank’s former protégé – has almost replicated that mysterious technology. Hank’s estranged daughter, Hope – played by Evangeline Lilly (Kate on “Lost“) – has helped him do it, but without Hank’s involvement, some major glitches remain. At the same time, Rudd, fired from yet another dead-end job, agrees to go in on a heist with his new roommates, and this is where the film finally picks up steam and becomes the irreverent wonder that it remains for the rest of its duration. In a brilliantly funny montage that showcases a manic Peña, Luis spins the yarn of how he learned about the score, convincing both Scott, and us, that we’re on to something special. So the team breaks into the house in question, where, in the vault, they find something that looks very much like a motorcycle suit (see poster, above, with tiny guy on Peña’s shoulder). Disappointed, Scott nevertheless packs up the suit, goes home, and then can’t resist trying on his new find. Which is when the film kicks up into an even higher gear.

For, you guessed it, this suit can shrink the man wearing it to ant-sized proportions, and this is also that mysterious technology which Hank has tried to hide from the military-industrial complex all these years. Before he knows it, Scott (and his roommates) are involved in a scheme to defeat the forces of evil (OK, that part is nothing new), working with Hank to stop Darren from finally completing his own research. Along the way, in spite of certain necessary genre tropes, we get a superhero movie unlike any we’ve seen in a bit (even more smart-alecky than the first Iron Man film), filled with gags both verbal and visual that keep us laughing even while the action scenes go at full tilt. My favorite moments remain the ones where we cut to a wide shot in the middle of a battle between diminutive participants, revealing the tiny size of the high stakes. The film is a delight, with all actors at the top of their game, and a fast pace that keeps us engaged even when the plot makes almost no sense. Ant-Man is a winner.

“Trainwreck” Offers a Chain of Amusing Anecdotes but a Wreck of a Story

Trainwreck

Trainwreck (Judd Apatow, 2015)

Since I first saw Trainwreck at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, two things have happened. First, the good: much to my delight, I have finally discovered Amy Schumer‘s body of work. Second, the bad: I have soured a bit on her debut feature, as – at this week’s press screening – I did not like it as much as I did four months ago. Based on my experiences with Schumer’s television show, I would have to say that she is an extremely talented sketch-comedy writer and performer. Based on my experiences with Trainwreck, I would have to say that though she remains a talented sketch-comedy writer, she is a rather pedestrian long-form storyteller. Director Judd Apatow’s typical loose and soggy pacing (think This Is 40) doesn’t help much. I laughed a lot in places, but was also bored and frustrated through many an overlong passage. You can’t have everything, I guess.

Schumer plays Amy Townsend, a thirty-something writer (for the fictional S’Nuff Magazine) with relationship issues. Like many a male movie protagonist before her, she boozes it up and sleeps around, taking her pleasure when and how she wants it. She isn’t what one would call happy, but she makes her own choices and that’s the end of it. In the brief flashback that opens the film, we see at least one of the reasons why she is the way she is: 20 years or so earlier, her parents split, and her father explains to Amy and her younger sister how monogamy just isn’t for everyone. The scene is derivative of the opening of Shallow Hal (thanks to my friend Michael Angelella for pointing that out), but it’s also hilarious (and sad). We sense we’re in good hands.

The good humor continues for a while, as we meet an engaging and hilarious cast of characters, including many celebrities not heretofore known for their acting. There’s the great Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive) as S’Nuff‘s editor-in-chief; Colin Quinn (Grown Ups) as the philandering father; Vanessa Bayer (from the “Saturday Night Live” of the past five years) as Amy’s best friend and fellow S’Nuff writer, Nikki; Randall Park (The Interview) as another (very funny) co-worker; WWE champion John Cena as Amy’s muscle-bound (sort of) boyfriend, who is one of the best things in the early part of the film; Bill Hader (The Skeleton Twins) as Dr. Aaron Conners, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine, about whom Amy is assigned to write a story; and a very funny LeBron James (yes, that LeBron James) as a version of himself who is both Conners’ former patient and best friend. Daniel Radcliffe (Kill Your Darlings) and Marisa Tomei (The Lincoln Lawyer) – in a movie-within-the-movie entitled The Dogwalker (which almost feels ripped off from my own short All About George) – are also extremely funny. Rounding out the cast are the ever-reliable Brie Larson (Short Term 12) as Amy’s younger sister, Kim, and comedian Mike Birbiglia (Sleepwalk with Me) as Kim’s husband, but they are as much a part of what works in the film as a part of the problem. They’re enjoyable, but so underwritten as to feel almost superfluous through much of the proceedings.

Researching her next story, Amy meets Aaron, they hook up (no surprise), and then the rest of the film consists of Amy avoiding the commitment to which we know she will succumb by the end. And that’s where the fun stops. For this is a movie that, though it at first appears to subvert the traditional rom-com genre with its embrace of liberated female sexuality, eventually transforms itself into a rather conventional and conservative example of that genre. Amy must grow up and give up the drinking and sex to be with her one true love. There’s nothing wrong with that trajectory – it’s the foundation upon which civilization is built – but it’s also not that interesting. Along the way, the filmmakers stretch many otherwise good sketches to the breaking point, and add many additional filler scenes, all to bring the final movie in at over two hours. Trainwreck is a lot of fun at times, but begs for additional edits, a brisker pace and a more original script.

Sixth Episode of “Reel Talk” (Final of the 2015-2016 Season) Is Now Available

Reel Talk 6

From L to R: Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “Reel Talk” host, with Jack Gerbes, his sixth guest.

The sixth episode of Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed – the final of our 2015-2016 season – is now available on HCC-TV. My guest this time was Jack Gerbes, Director, Maryland Film Office. We reviewed three current films: AmyTed 2 and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. In Howard County, Maryland, you can watch the episode on Channel 41 (if you’re a Verizon customer) or Channel 96 (if you’re a Comcast customer), or online. Enjoy!

As always, the amazing HCC-TV team did a fantastic job putting this together, especially producer Karen Vadnais and director Danielle Maloney. Thanks to them, we just recently won a Telly Award. Congratulations to all!

We will start back up in September. Until then, if you want to watch the fifth episode of this past season, click here; the fourth episode, click here; third episode, click here; the second episode, click here; and the first episode, click here.

The New Documentary “Amy” Is a Powerful Pop-Culture Nightmare for Our Time

Amy

Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015)

Amy is a brutal documentary about the initial triumphs and ultimate tragedy of the enormously talented British jazz singer Amy Winehouse, who died, in 2011, of alcohol poisoning at only 27 years of age. Blessed with a magnetically sultry voice and the ability to sing just about any kind of music – but cursed with the demons of insecurity and addiction – Winehouse rose to stardom over the course of five years, from the release of her first album, Frank, in 2003, to the release of her follow-up, Back to Black, which won five Grammys in 2008. British director Asif Kapadia – whose last feature documentary, Senna, in 2010, was about the Brazilian Formula One race-car driver Ayrton Senna – who also died young – has fashioned a harrowing no-holds-barred look at the rise and fall of a very troubled young woman whose genius and fame were no protection against the evil spirits – including self-serving family members and hangers-on – that plagued her.

To me, the movie felt very much like a horror film (Max Weiss, at Baltimore Magazine, wrote an excellent review in which she argued the same point); the first documentary horror film I can recall seeing. Little by little, we see possession – the twin devils of addiction and insecurity, exacerbated by sudden celebrity – destroy this great talent. Thanks to the participation of Winehouse’s first manager, Nick Shymanksy, Kapadia had access to many hours of video from Winehouse’s early singing days to the beginning of her breakdown (she and Shymansky parted ways when she didn’t take to his attempts to help her deal with her addictions), and the director uses the footage to show us his subject on- and off-stage. To round out this impressive archival material, Kapadia also edits in video from her friends: one of the very first things we see in the movie is Winehouse singing “Happy Birthday,” at age 14; already, she had impressive pipes.

Unusual for a biographical documentary, there are no traditional talking-head interviews. Instead, we hear the voices of the various actors in Winehouse’s life appear underneath moving images of them, with a lower-third title letting us know who is speaking, but never in a formal setting. It helps to make the film feel like a fly-on-the-wall cinéma vérité piece, even though it is clearly carefully crafted and shaped.

Indeed, Kapadia structures his story with great precision, and lays out a clear case against those who took advantage of Winehouse’s fame without offering her any protection: the biggest villain is, in fact, her own father. Not surprisingly, the family – even though they participated in the making of the movie – is now vocally opposed to the final product. Too bad. All the filmmaker does is allow them to be damned by their own words and actions. All one has to do is listen to the lyrics of Winehouse’s hit song “Rehab” to hear how negative an influence her father could be.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the film is how we see – towards the end of the story – how snarky and scornful the international press is in its coverage of Winehouse’s final year (and how many flashbulbs the paparazzi would subject her to!), when she is frequently drunk and dazed in public. They didn’t then have the advantage of having seen the film we’ve just seen. The movie should make us all think about how quick we are to judge the supposed moral failings of others. In the age of viral social media, we often verbalize opinions without regard to consequences. For sure, the media didn’t kill Amy (nor did her family, however much they didn’t help), but their callousness made her increasing isolation increasingly lonely. This powerful must-see film is a true nightmarish parable for our time.

 

The Despicable “Minions” Proffer a Chuckle and Occasional Laugh

Minions

Minions (Kyle Balda/Pierre Coffin, 2015)

If you’re looking for a new family film to which to bring the little ones, look no further than Minions, a prequel (of sorts) to Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2. If you remember, the “minions” are those little yellow creatures – some one-eyed, some two-eyed, all with goggles – who serve the villain (of sorts) Gru. They speak in an Esperanto-like language in which certain phrases and words are distinguishable, but which otherwise sounds like gibberish (and they’re all voiced by co-director Pierre Coffin, who also co-directed the first two films). Ever wonder where they came from? No? Then don’t bother with this movie, unless you’re really bored. Yes? Then this is the flick for you!

Actually, you could see this film without knowing anything about its universe and still pass a relatively enjoyable 90 minutes. Though hardly a work of genius, it’s entertaining enough, and has one or two good jokes that made me laugh out loud, rather than just chuckle (my response to 95% of the proceedings). Other than the brilliant Inside Out (which you could always go see again), there’s not a whole lot out there right now for kids, so why not go see Minions? A ringing endorsement, I know!

In an opening sequence narrated by Geoffrey Rush (The Book Thief), we learn that the minions evolved to serve evil overlords, beginning back in the Jurassic Era. They have an unfortunate propensity to cause (unintentionally) the demise of their masters, and so are constantly, over the eons, on the lookout for a new “boss.” Flash forward to 1968, and they find themselves stuck in an ice cave with no such ruler, bored and listless. A particularly intrepid minion named Kevin (they all have single English names like this) decides that this just won’t do, and so gathers two volunteers – Stuart and Bob – to go in search of a new criminal mastermind in need of servants. Once in New York, they learn of a “Villain-con” convention about to happen in Orlando, and head down there, where they meet the baddest of the baddies, a woman named Scarlet Overkill, voiced by Sandra Bullock (Gravity). Soon, adventures and misadventures ensue as the proceedings move to London, all so that the film can play an extended joke on the royal family (a great joke, actually, as this is what made me laugh out loud; excuse me, LOL). It’s fun. It’s just not super fun.

Along for the ride on the voice-talent train are the likes of Jon Hamm (“Mad Men“), Allison Janney (“The West Wing“) and Michael Keaton (Birdman), though the only one who truly shines is Hamm, exceptionally funny as Scarlet Overkill’s hubby. Bullock is fine as the villainess, but nothing special (Angelina Jolie or, even funnier, Scarlett Johansson, as my colleague Linda DeLibero suggested, would have been better). The movie works when it works, and when it doesn’t its failure is fairly painless. Bring the children and be done with it.

“Self/less” Needs Less Stupid

Self/less

Self/less (Tarsem Singh, 2015)

Poor Ryan Reynolds. He’s a charming enough screen presence, yet so often chooses projects of such mediocrity that he just can’t quite rise into the Hollywood A-List. In big-budget flops like Green LanternRIPD and now (I predict) Self/less, the problem is not him. He’s fine. As always, he’s extremely likable and capable. It’s the script that’s terrible.

Imagine All of Me meets Face/Off (that forward slash is the key!),* only not as good or interesting as either (and Face/Off was hardly terrific), and you’ll have some idea as to what this new movie is about. Late-60s New-York business tycoon Damian – played by Ben Kingsley (Sexy Beast) doing some kind of working-class Brooklyn accent that makes him sound like Elmer Fudd – is dying of cancer; he has six months to live. Desperate, he signs up for a risky (and secretive) procedure – called “shedding” – in which his consciousness and memories will be transferred into a new lab-grown body by the unctuous Dr. Albright, played by the ever-charismatic Matthew Goode (Stoker). He settles his affairs, fakes his own death, and voilà! He now looks and sounds (the accent is gone!) just like Ryan Reynolds. He’s given a new identity and sent off to New Orleans to party, which he does like it’s 1976 (that’s my approximation of the year in which Damian would have been the age of the body he now inhabits), drinking a lot and sleeping with many attractive young women. All is good until he starts having flashbacks (making this also a bit like the original Robocop) that belong, perhaps, to his new host, who may not, in fact, be lab-grown. Whoops. At this point, the film transitions from attempted high-concept thriller to straight-up action movie, with chase scenes galore (some of which are not bad, I’ll admit). Will Damian uncover the mystery behind the new him? Guess …

Briefly, at the start, the movie flirts with some interesting ideas about our fear of death and desire for immortality. But then, all too quickly, it descends into ridiculousness, as we are struck, time and again, by the improbabilities of the science fiction concept as it is executed. There are some cute scenes involving a kid, but that doesn’t help. Whatever entertainment value there is, at first, quickly finds itself overwhelmed by stupidity. Sorry, Ryan. Next time.

*[Note from 7/11/15: Since writing my review, I have learned that Self/less is almost directly inspired by John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, even though that earlier – and by all accounts, far superior film – receives no mention in the credits. My next task? Watch Seconds … ]

Let the Geekz n the Hood Hook You on “Dope”

Dope

Dope (Rick Famuyiwa, 2015)

American Graffiti meets Risky Business meets Boyz n the Hood meets Friday. That’s all I have to say. And then some. Director Rick Famuyiwa (Our Family Wedding) has fashioned a highly entertaining and extremely intelligent comedy about self-professed high-school geeks in the rough gang-infested neighborhood of Inglewood, California, who suddenly find themselves unwittingly involved in the very drugs and crime they have managed to avoid so successfully until their senior year. To use one of the definitions of the movie’s title that flashes on the opening title card, Dope is dope.

Stylishly shot and edited, this movie moves along so briskly that its occasional narrative nonsense matters not. This is the story of Malcolm, Jib and Diggy, best friends who, every day, not only navigate the usual minefields of high school, but also the very real dangers of the world outside. Played, in order, by Shameik Moore (The Watsons Go to Birmingham), Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Kiersey Clemons (“Transparent“), these kids are vibrant three-dimensional characters in a world we normally see portrayed as an urban-nightmare backdrop to larger stories about Los Angeles (such as Training Day). It’s a joy to watch the three young actors at work; they are at ease with each other, suggesting long friendships forged through common interests and much time spent together.

They’re also geeks, which makes them greater misfits in Inglewood than they would be in, say a John Hughes film. The stakes are higher. People actually get shot where they live. Famuyiwa, who grew up in Inglewood, himself, shows us the danger, right away, even if he plays it for comedy. So anything can happen. To make them even greater targets, Malcolm, Jib and Diggy are obsessed with 1990s-era hip-hop. They’re out of fashion, and so not cool. But they do have a shot at going to college, and a good one: as the film begins, Malcolm is applying to Harvard. Though his college guidance counselor thinks he’s arrogant, we sense it is not an unreasonable dream, for him.

But then Malcolm takes a fancy to the on-again-off-again girlfriend of a local drug dealer, gets himself invited to a club party, and suddenly finds himself in possession of a bag of drugs (Molly) and a gun. Big whoops. At first, he and his friends just want to get rid of the stuff, but the ownership of said property is in dispute, and so begins a crazy odyssey across the city that lands them in the home of a local businessman – born in Inglewood, but now living in a mansion – who, instead of helping them, tells them to move the product and just give him the money. And so our geeks have to become what they’ve never wanted to be: drug dealers. Except that they know a thing or two about the dark web and Tor browsers, so maybe – just maybe – they’ll get away with it. Without, you know, dying.

In spite of the few times when the movie’s blend of action thrills and comedy falls just shy of the mark, I loved it. It’s witty and smart, with fast-paced dialogue covering topics from the legacy of Ice Cube to Obama’s use of drones to the propriety of hip white people saying the n-word to, of course (this is a teen movie, after all), sex. This is a film about people of color – who just happen to live in a dangerous neighborhood – with the same aspirations as everyone else. I know. Surprising. It’s also terrific fun. With a strong supporting cast that includes Zoë Kravitz (Mad Max: Fury Road), Rakim Mayers (aka rapper A$AP Rocky), model Chanel Iman, Comedy Central’s Blake Anderson (“Workaholics“) and veteran actor Roger Guenveur Smith (American Gangster), Dope is filled with quirky and original people who give its narrative true depth. Though the ending may feel a bit too polemical, overall this is a fresh and lively piece of filmmaking, and I highly recommend.

“Infinitely Polar Bear” Shines through the Madness

Infinitely Polar Bear

Infinitely Polar Bear (Maya Forbes, 2014)

[A quick and full disclosure: Maya Forbes and I not only share a college alma mater, but also graduated in the same year from that institution. That said, I never knew her, though we have at least one friend in common. Until this movie was released, I hadn’t heard her name mentioned since my student days. Now on to my review.]

In Infinitely Polar Bear, first-time director Maya Forbes tells the moving autobiographical tale of her own childhood. Born to a white father and a black mother in 1968, Forbes – at least according to this film – was not particularly perplexed by any issues of biracial identity. Rather, the big challenge for her, her younger sister and her mother was dealing with poverty and her father’s mental illness. Dad was diagnosed with manic depression (now called bipolar disorder) in 1967, but his symptoms didn’t become severely problematic until 1978 (again, according to the film). That’s where our story begins.

Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher) plays Cameron Stuart (in real life a member of the Boston Brahmin Forbes family), whose family money is tied up in a trust managed by his great-grandmother, who decides, on her own, and often haphazardly, when and how (and how much) and to whom to give funds. Before the start of the main story, we see, in footage made to look like old home movies, his meeting with Maggie, played by Zoe Saldana (Guardians of the Galaxy). They marry, have two daughters, and then his breakdowns become more severe. As the movie gets truly underway, Cameron (Cam) has taken the girls out of school for an afternoon and is running around in a bathing suit by a lake in the middle of the winter. He is institutionalized, and then, with the help of medicine and treatment, slowly starts the slow journey back to some semblance of normalcy (and fatherhood), if that is even possible. His kids and wife still love him, but they can’t really live with him.

Except that without any income from Cam, Maggie has trouble staying afloat. They don’t live in the right neighborhood for the good public school, and both parents fret about the future prospects for their kids if they aren’t properly educated. Maggie – smart and capable – applies to business school, and is accepted to Columbia on scholarship. The only problem is that Columbia is in New York, and the only housing she can afford is a one-room sublet. So, since Cam seems to have improved (somewhat), the parents strike a reluctant deal. Cam will move back into the family apartment to supervise the girls, and Maggie will head to New York to earn the MBA that will give her and her family a shot at a better life (in real life, Peggy Woodford Forbes did exactly what she does in the film, and, according to her official bio, became “the first African American woman to establish a registered investment advisory firm in growth equity management in the United States”), with plans to come back to Boston on the weekends. The stage is set for a very interesting family drama, or comedy (much of it is funny), or both.

At first, the film feels scattered, much like Cam’s brain. With bits and pieces of scenes strewn like random memories, the narrative lacks coherence. But then, slowly, the story gathers momentum, and then Forbes’s earlier aesthetic choices make more sense. Although she puts the two girls front and center, this is most definitely Cam’s story, and we need to follow his own journey as he struggles to figure out how to adapt to a world of occasional incoherence. The seeming mess of the opening leads to the more structured middle, which leads, in turn, to the perfect ending. As we watch Cam and Maggie struggle to raise a family, and watch Maggie fight to achieve her laudable goals, and watch Cam do his best to not go off the rails, and all the while watch the girls grow up with a father who is as much a child as them, and a mother who is so frequently absent, we become increasingly involved in their lives, and wish them success.

Going back to the issue of race, it’s actually surprising and quite refreshing that it is treated so incidentally here. Given the time period – the Supreme Court’s “Loving vs. Virginia” decision outlawing bans on interracial marriage had come in 1967 – it’s amazing that there are only two mentions of race (that I caught) in the entire film. One happens when the older daughter (the director’s surrogate) wonders why she doesn’t look black, and the other occurs when Maggie, frustrated that her plans may not work, bemoans to Cam how the world views poor whites much differently than poor blacks. And that’s it. If for nothing else (and there is so much more), the movie is remarkable in how simply and without drama it shows a black woman and a white man raising a family in America in the 1970s.

The four lead actors help to propel the film forward, even through the occasional moments when the script falters and becomes a little too expositional. Ruffalo is terrific in the showy part, but it’s Saldana who is the emotional heart of the film in the vital, but less flashy, role of Maggie. The girls, however, shoulder much of the film’s narrative weight, and they are more than up to the challenge. Newcomer Imogene Wolodarsky – who just happens to be the director’s daughter (her father is also the film’s producer) – plays Amelia, the eldest, and novice though she may be, she shines. Ashley Aufderheide – another relative beginner – plays Faith (who, in real life, grew up to be China Forbes, the lead singer of Pink Martini), the younger daughter, and she is similarly wonderful. In fact, both girls, together, give two of the finest child performances I have seen in a long time, natural and without seeming artifice.

The film is far from perfect. There are those awkward bits where too much is said by characters for the sole purpose of explaining the backstory. And then there’s the unfortunate title, which may not help the movie garner the audience it deserves, since it seems to suggest a very different kind of children’s story. But otherwise, there is so much to admire and respect and enjoy about Infinitely Polar Bear that its occasional flaws recede into the background, leaving, in foreground, a sweet and powerful tale of love and perseverance and resilience. I look forward to Ms. Forbes’ next film.