“Infinitely Polar Bear”: A Dad With Bipolar Disorder

The devastating effect of bipolar disorder on marriage and other personal relationships is not a new subject, but in most movies it is examined from a woman’s perspective. Infinitely Polar Bear, a terrible turn-off title for one of the best films of the year, views the affliction and its psychological repercussions through a different lens. Rex Reed, New York Observer

In the new 1970’s-set dramedy Infinitely Polar Bear, Mark Ruffalo‘s Cameron must leave his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) and daughters (Ashley Aufderheide and Imogene Wolodarsky) to live in a halfway house after suffering a mental breakdown.

Cam has known for a while that he has manic-depressive disorder (now called bipolar disorder). “His African-American girlfriend…married him regardless, partly because it was the ’60s and mental health was all relative anyway,” states Justin Chang, Variety.

The main event occurs when Maggie wants to leave the Boston area to attend business school in New York. Cam, working on his recovery, then becomes the primary live-in parent.

Why such a need for Maggie to leave town? Because she needs a better career, she reasons, in order to send her kids to private school. Some critics have wondered why Cam’s wealthy family doesn’t just help out. For that matter, can’t she attend school closer to home?

More understandable in terms of plot development, it turns out Cam neither likes being on his Lithium nor has a strong ability to be a single father. John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter:

Cam fails many tests in the early weeks of the arrangement: He leaves the house while the girls are asleep, going out for hours to get drunk; he abandons housekeeping; he’s so intent on trying to befriend neighbors in the family’s new apartment building that he alienates every resident. His love for the girls is never in doubt, but even after some seeming steps toward responsibility, he’s the kind of dad no child-welfare officer would tolerate.

Although fictional, the script is based on the childhood of writer/director Maya Forbes, whose father had once described his own illness as “infinitely polar bear.”

The trailer’s below:

Ruffalo’s Portrayal of Bipolar Disorder

Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice: “…(H)e doesn’t reduce his character to a series of behavioral tics: He’s always a person first — with all the complexity and contradictions that implies — and not just a passive victim of his illness, a blank slate for it to scribble on. We ride his highs and lows with him just by looking into his eyes: We know where he’s at every minute by reading their glittering recklessness or their chamomile calm.”

Ella Taylor, NPR: “At its best, Infinitely Polar Bear is about a nice, unbalanced man trying and often failing to do right by his kids, and vice versa. And Ruffalo is the least histrionic of actors even when Cam is, as the social workers put it, ‘disinhibited,’ when he never shuts up and pulls stunts that bemuse or alienate every adult in his orbit. He’s a big kid himself — impulsive, charming, self-involved and mostly ill-attuned to the social signals of others.”

Selected Reviews

Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “…Forbes hasn’t made a movie about her father’s illness; she’s made one about her father, who, through hard and weird times, clearly helped give her what she needed so that one day she could tell this story.”

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: “The movie is a small miracle, lifted by Ruffalo and these two remarkable young actresses. Refusing to soften the edges when Cam is off his meds, Ruffalo is a powerhouse. He and Forbes craft an indelibly intimate portrait of what makes a family when the roles of parent and child are reversed.”

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