Films having to do with mental illness are tough. Should the film be about the mental illness itself? Should it be about universal themes? Will it offend if not portrayed the way some might like? And most especially for a writer who may not have dealt with mental illness on a personal level, it can be hard to try to encompass all the struggles that come with it. Most of these films become more than just about the illness itself and often transcend themselves into well-known themes about family and the like. This is exactly what first-time director Maya Forbes (Monsters vs. Aliens) does with Infinitely Polar Bear, combining a mental illness with themes about family, relationships, and the reversal of the traditional roles of men and women within the family, sometimes not successfully, but many of the personal touches are heartfelt and genuine enough.
Cameron (Mark Ruffalo) has bipolar disorder and suffers from a mental breakdown which causes him to stop working, nearly breaks up his family, and damages him in different ways as he tries to get his feet back on the ground. His daughters Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide), more than anyone, are the ones who are in the crossfire of their father’s breakdown. Their mother Maggie (Zoe Saldana) is forced to make the tough choices after their sense of normalcy falls apart.
Knowing that, in order to acquire a well-paying job, she must get a master’s degree, all the while struggling with being the full-time bread-winner for the family. When she gets accepted to Columbia University, Maggie is torn between leaving Boston, and her children in the care of her unstable husband, behind to go to New York. Promising to come see them every week, Cameron vows to take care of his daughters and create some stability in his life, and not always in this order.
Mark Ruffalo has a natural charm about him. No matter what character he’s playing, there is always someone likable beneath his rugged exterior. This is absolutely true in his role as Cameron. There’s a deep sense of vulnerability in all the running around that he does (and he does that a lot). His character is restless, weighed down by the pressures of his responsibility to his daughters, and Ruffalo portrays that loud and clear. Zoe Saldana, whose time onscreen is more limited than Ruffalo’s, delivers a nuanced performance of hardship, quiet strength, and perseverance. She knows nothing can be the same again, and both she and Ruffalo’s difficult decisions come to a head at the end in the most powerful emotional scene of the film, and one which brings everything together in a beautiful moment.
The film is a juggling act. Between Cameron’s disorder, to Maggie’s going back to school, to the relationship between Cameron and his daughters, there’s a slight gap in the attention that Forbes gives to one story over the other. Granted, they all intersect, but some things are lost in the process. The biracial theme is mentioned once, and given the fact that the film takes place in the 1970s, it would have been highly intriguing for Forbes to delve a little more into this as interracial marriage was completely frowned upon. I believe there could have been more attention given to Saldana’s storyline, most especially the role reversal in the traditionally male role she has to take on for her family and in parallel, the “mom” role that Ruffalo takes on. It would have added a bit more depth to the already ambitious story.
Infinitely Polar Bear is a good start to Maya Forbes’s directing career. The writing needs a bit more polishing and less introduced themes that are on the verge of being important, but don’t ultimately play a large part in the film. However, Forbes uses the strength of her cast and story of togetherness and persevering through various family and personal struggles to give us a portrait of unique experience driven by its fantastic performances and character relationships.