Zoe Saldaña has made waves as one of the biggest female action stars of our time, playing a lead role in three huge franchises. She plays Gamora in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Uhura in Star Trek, and Neytiri in James Cameron‘s Avatar franchise. It remains an incredible accomplishment that Saldaña has been able to add such depth and charisma to performances where she’s often covered in makeup or acting through a computer-generated body, as retaining a unique personality within a franchise film dominated by its action sequences and plot mechanics is no easy task. However, Saldaña’s success in blockbusters should not in any way suggest that she only excels in action films. Saldaña gave a heartbreakingly nuanced performance in the underrated independent dramedy Infinitely Polar Bear in a team-up with Mark Ruffalo. The 2014 Sundance Film Festival breakout hit showed her mastering both the warmth and determination of a dedicated mother.
Infinitely Polar Bear follows the touching romance between the aspiring law student Maggie (Saldaña) and her loving husband Cam (Ruffalo) as they attempt to find a life together under stressful financial conditions in the Boston area during the late 1970s. While there’s a mutual sense of affection that the couple shares, Maggie is clearly the responsible party in the relationship, and Saldaña brings forward that sense of maturity. Cam suffers from bipolar depression, and a mental break results in him losing his job and spending serious time hospitalized. This puts Maggie in a deeply stressful situation that Saldaña captures in a heartbreaking nature in this movie. Maggie deeply cares for Cam and hopes to see him recover fully as soon as possible, but she also realizes that any added hospital bills or living expenses to deal with his condition will only put the family under a greater financial burden.
In addition to having to watch over Cam, Maggie is also in the midst of raising two young girls, Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide). While both children have the same sense of self-dignity and responsibility that their mother does, they’re also young and have to deal with a fluctuating financial situation and a struggling family. They tend to get rowdy and temperamental, and Maggie has to put her foot down at the necessary moments. Saldaña does a great job at showing which instances require Maggie to be truly sensitive, and the rare moments when she’s forced to raise her voice. Although it breaks her heart to come down harshly on her daughters, she knows that a little bit of roughness is what they need in order to survive, and she knows this better than most. It’s here where a bit of the defiant edge of Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura and the warrior spirit of Avatar’s Neytiri can be seen in Saldaña’s performance.
While Maggie’s life in many ways revolves around her children, that does not mean she lacks any ambition of her own. Her goal is to earn a scholarship to attend Columbia University, where she knows that a professional internship and M.B.A. degree will help pave a long-term financial future for her family so that they’re not trapped in the slums of the struggling Boston area for the rest of their lives, as her children are both uniquely brilliant and deserve a proper educational experience in a private school. However, attending the school would force her to leave her daughters with Cam in Boston while she studies in New York, which poses an even greater challenge. Can she trust a man who she’s watched have mental breakdowns to take care of the children that she loves so dearly? Saldaña’s performance has to show the internalized conflict that Maggie must deal with: she can’t be completely honest with Cam for fear that he’ll have a strong emotional reaction, and as mature as her daughters are, the complexities of their situation aren’t something she can easily put into words in a way that they will understand.
The 1970s setting of the movie helps contextualize Maggie’s struggles and makes the burden of her responsibilities even more challenging. As a Black mother studying law in New York, she has to deal with constantly being undervalued and discounted for her skills. She has to show a level of ambition in order to convince her potential legal employers that she deserves to be a candidate, but without making them feel uncomfortable. It’s an infuriating complication that she has to deal with, and there’s a silent, seething rage to some of the forced smiles that Saldaña must give. However, with each of these instances, there’s a moment where Saldaña’s performance softens and she has to admit a painful truth to anyone looking to hire her: she has kids. While Maggie knows that this will make her chance of landing a full-time position even more challenging and that any potential employers will immediately judge her, she knows it’s a conversation that needs to be handled first and foremost before she can make any long-term commitments.
Amidst these stressful situations, there is room for occasional celebration during the rare weekends when Maggie can take a break from her studies to go and visit her daughters and check in on their father in Boston. She’s clearly disheveled and has been overworked to the point of exhaustion, but Saldaña does not show a hint of fatigue in her performance when Maggie is spending time with her family. While they may detract from her time studying for exams, the visits home help remind her what she is working towards. If providing a better life for her children isn’t the end goal, then what’s the point of making such an intense commitment?
Infinitely Polar Bear is the type of Sundance dramedy that tends to disappear if it doesn’t become an awards contender, but the understated film shows two of the industry’s most popular blockbuster actors doing some of the more nuanced work of their respective careers. While both Gamora and Bruce Banner have their place, Infinitely Polar Bear is a reminder that there’s a limit to the expression that actors like Zoe Saldaña and Mark Ruffalo can show in the MCU. In Saldaña’s case, she’s truly best when she’s able to step out from behind a green screen and sink her teeth into a character this specific.
Infinitely Polar Bear is available to stream on Max in the U.S.