At first, Maya Forbes “Infinitely Polar Bear,” plays out like a stereotypical indie film trampled with a sentimental look at nontraditional characters, complete with the most likely independent music that further bolsters such sappy tones. We see in Super 8mm film the development between Cameron (Mark Ruffalo) and Maggie (Zoe Saldana) and their blossoming love zipping by the tumultuous sixties. Then come the children, Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide). Untampered happiness of family bonds quickly turns into a mess when we then see Cameron running in his underwear on a chilly morning towards his family as they have trapped themselves into their car, fearing the man in the family. It is a scene of startling effectiveness that forces the audience to look upon a moment of uncertainty. Maggie, with a weathered demeanor, explains to her two daughters that daddy is very sick. This juxtaposition between tone and visual content serves as the slightly ironic but ultimately respectful outlook “Infinitely Polar Bear” carries in regards to mental illness, which is what the film is mainly about. It’s is at once a family drama, a comedy of errors, but both perspectives nestle within the realm of mental illness. Maya Forbes’s fusion of drama and comedy works well to both depict manic depression and bipolar disorder, which is what Cameron has been diagnosed with, as unabridged while erasing any sense of ignominy that may be associated with the public image of mental illness.
In mentioning that the introductory juxtaposition that reveals the film’s stance on its subject to be effective, I must say that the film gets carried away with the sentimental sappiness of the aforementioned stereotype, including more than enough montages with the same type of music over and over again that it resembled filler more than it resembled passages of time. It certainly didn’t resemble development in character but even if it did that would be a waste because the performances are completely entertaining. Mark Ruffalo, who I last saw as the caring but vigorous older brother to Channing Tatum’s Mark Schultz in “Foxcatcher.” Here he is fragile, yet he exhibits rugged sentiments. Ideals of love and companionship battle with the pain of failure or the hardship of loneliness. It must be hard to cope when you know you have such an illness but you also know you can’t manage it well. Life becomes maybe not cyclical, but a repeated spiral or an ebb and flow between control over a situation and complete lack thereof. Ruffalo’s performances embodies a certain strength and a certain pain yet such a performance is enriched with complexity through humor. One of the things that makes Cameron an intriguing character is that he has a sense of humor, and knows it. Though the audience might not be able to tell whether or not the humor invoked in a certain scene stems from Cameron’s humor or his illness, but the fact is that our ability to laugh during some of the scenes provides us the the space to become comfortable with the topic. Manic depression doesn’t manifest itself as some death sentence or endless void of ostracizing. Rather, the humor uncovers the humanity that is within every one including those fighting mental illness. While some scenes do admittedly straddle the line between laughing with and laughing at Cameron’s condition, I would say that through Ruffalo’s acting and Forbes direction the film maintains its open-minded nature towards mental illness quite powerfully. Such is the greatness the Ruffalo withholds in this role.
So what about the story? The main reason I discussed Ruffalo first was because his performance remains central to the overall story, After his mental breakdown at the beginning of the film, he is admitted to the hospital and soon admitted to a halfway house, living separately from his wife and daughters. Maggie knows that Cameron cannot stay with them and knows that the idea of a solidified family are gone but she holds onto some imperceptible sliver of hope that sees past the pain of her husband’s degradation. Aside from thinking about him, she wants what is best for her daughters and with that she enrolls in an MBA program at Columbia, where she must leave her girls in Boston as she ventures to New York City for eighteen months. She asks Cameron to look after the kids while she is gone. A ludicrous, almost unconvincing, task for a man of that state to execute, Cameron has his doubts but does so in an effort to win his wife back for good.
The relationship between Cameron and his daughters carries a dynamic elasticity filled with vibrant surprises and a determined joint performance by the two child actors. Rather brilliantly, such dynamics put into question who is doing the parenting or, instead, are the girls taking care of the father? Yet, it doesn’t stop there because kids are not parents and present themselves just as volatile as their father. They repeatedly let him know of how weird he is and that they would never let him be around his friends in fear of becoming a pariah of sorts. These scenes, with its gritty comedy and heartfelt investigation of a family trying to come back together, are powerful. Unfortunately, they only make the forced predictability of the montage all the more tiresome because all it shows us is what we are missing, leaving the audience on the outside of a development we are happily infected by.
“Infinitely Polar Bear” succeeds in not just in its performances but in story structure. Apart from the numerous montages, Forbes creates a narrative that carefully reflects the combustible subject. The story is not so much a story as it is a process, a philosophy by which Forbes frames mental illness. It is not so much that mental illness is provided a singular solution but rather a process by which one can control their lives to an extent. This is what the narrative structure invokes, ignoring a notion of admonishing, or feeling overtly sorry for Cameron. Cameron is represented as a sick human being, but a human being with a spirit.