MOVIES: “Infinitely Polar Bear” Shows Cars as Much-Loved Family Members

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polar bear citron girls running

Infinitely Polar Bear is a gem of a movie that portrays the Stuart family’s struggle during the early to mid-1970s in Cambridge, Mass., and how their cars became important family members.

The movie is based on the life experiences of Maya Forbes, her sister China (the lead singer of Pink Martini), her mother and her dad, Cam Forbes.  We’re car nuts here, and at BestRide some of us grew up during the 1970s in Cambridge.  Anyone can love this movie, but if you love cars and consider them part of your family, or if you are a child of the 1970s, get to the nearest independent movie house as fast as your own car will take you.

In the story, the father, Cam, played by Mark Ruffalo, struggles with bipolar disorder and the family tries hard to cope.  The condition is so severe it requires Cam to be in and out of the hospital. In addition to the father’s mental illness, the family is living in poverty, despite the fact that the father’s extended family is wealthy. In fact, Maya Forbes has a family connection to both U.S. Secretary of State John Forbes Kerry, and to U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Cameron Forbes Kerry.

We don’t want to say much more for fear of spoiling the surprises, but we will add the mother is accepted to an MBA program in New York and the family is faced with the father staying behind to raise the two girls alone.

Reviewers from the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, NPR, and other major outlets have all reviewed the move, and most have spoken with its writer.  But none of the reviews or interviews we read made even a passing reference to the other characters in the film, the cars.  BestRide spoke cars, Cambridge, and family struggles with the movie’s writer and director Maya Forbes.

BR –  The cars in this movie almost seem like eccentric family members.  We see a Triumph Spitfire, a 1960s Volvo, and a Citroen DS Wagon. Were these the real models you had growing up?  The movie starts with the mom of the family hurrying to pack her kids into a 1960s Volvo.  The dad is riding a bicycle in his underwear and begging them not to leave.  He manages to pop the hood and pull out the distributor and spark plug wires, holding them, sadly, like a dead octopus.  Was the Volvo the actual model you owned?

MF -No, but every car is as close as I could get.  Our car from that era was a powder blue Saab.  I loved the color of the Volvo we used in the scene.  It is a colder wintery color, and I loved the way it looked in that landscape.

BR – Who helped you to find the cars you needed?

MF – We had an amazing guy named Ben Taradash, who found all these cars for us.  I don’t know what we would have done without him because the cars were so important and because they were characters.  We used them to establish the period.  Ben and our production designer Carl Sprague did an amazing job getting the look right.  We also used the cars to hide anachronisms.  We had an old period Winnebago we used all over the place to hide things we didn’t want people to see.

BR – So if there was something on the street you were shooting that would tip off it was 2015 you would just roll up one of the cars or Winnebago and hide it that way?

MF – Yeah, we had that, and we had this piece of collapsing stake fence.  We needed to use these simple dilapidated things to give the film the look we needed to make it authentic.

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BR – Another car shown at the beginning is a Triumph Spitfire.  Was that a real car you remembered or was that just representative of a car Cam would have owned?

MF – That scene was actually Super-8 film my father filmed in Cambridge.  All that old Super-8 film is real.  My father would just drive around in Cambridge shooting out the window of his cars while driving.  He loved cars.  That shot of the old Bus with the Framingham sign, the Spitfire, those are my dad’s movies.

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– The next car in the movie is the Citroen DS Wagon.  Did you really have a Citroen?

MF – We did not. We had the Saab, a Fiat, and Peugeots.  The Saab, by the way, burned up in a fire.  That was the end of the Saab.  It was a scene that was too expensive to shoot.  We actually had two cars that went up in flames.   The Citroen seems like a car that my father would have had before I was born.  I was very happy we found that car because it was exactly the kind he would drive.  Our car had no suspension, and we got bounced around like crazy.  Which is why in the scene and he’s driving fast they girls get bounced around like popcorn.  I wanted to give the feeling of what it was like.  That was a great find that Citroen.  It was perfect.

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BR – That car was perfect.  It was period correct, and it was such a good example of something the character Cam would choose.

MF – That was the first car that Ben showed up with.

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BR – One of the scenes that tugged at my heart strings was when Cam has to trade the family Citroen wagon for a junker Plymouth Valiant with no floors.  One of the girls says “What will happen to the wagon!?”  Was this how you remembered that day?

MF – I always felt sad for the broken down cars.  I just felt like no one would want them.  That was something I felt many many times along the way when these cars just gave up the ghost.

BR – One of our writers, Craig Fitzgerald recently did a story that struck a nerve about cars with rotted out floors.  We all loved that story because it is so rare now, but back then it was common.

MF – Yes, my dad was glad when he got that Valiant for the money he did because it ran, but we were so un-excited when that Valiant came around.

BR – You and everyone else in America that ended up with a Valiant in their driveway in the ’70s…

polar bear floors of valiant
– In the story you represent South Station by a bus stop you mom comes home from New York to.  Cam finds a spot to park illegally in a Church lot and says “Guess how much I paid to park!?”  My dad did the same thing near South Station when I was a kid going to Boston.

MF – Yeah, my dad was always looking for the perfect spot.  The one he could “get away with.”

BR – After the timeline of the movie ends were there any interesting cars in the family?

MF – My mother was really into cars.  She had a red Mercedes SL.  My dad had a big red wagon with those rumble seats in the back.  When I was a teenager he’d come pick me up at parties and drive all of the kids home.  He’d lay them down in the back of that wagon like fire wood.  After that he had one of the first Hyundais.  It was given to him by his father as sort of a punishment.  That was the second of our cars that went up in flames.

BR – Is the car bug hereditary?  Do you have any unusual cars?

MF –  I like safe cars.  My husband is always so bored by my choices.  I’m always like “what about a Subaru Outback?  It has Eyesight.”

Infinitely Polar Bear is playing in theaters now.


Still Images and trailer courtesy of Sony Classics and IMDb.

Image of Cam and the girls sitting in the Citroen courtesy of the Infinitely Polar Bear Media Sony Classics media page by Claire Folger, Courtesy of Sundance Institute.