Based on writer/ director Maya Forbes’ own experience as a child, Infinitely Polar Bear is set in 1978 Boston and stars Mark Ruffalo as Cameron, a man suffering from bipolar disorder. Following a breakdown, Cameron is forced to leave his family and move into a halfway house. The film focuses on his attempt to rebuild a relationship with his two daughters and win back the trust of his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana).
When Maggie decides to go to business school in New York, they make the very big decision that he will move back in and take care of their two children. Due to his volatile nature, a series of quirky, funny, and frightening episodes follow.
The subject of mental illness has been tackled in several films of late (The Babadook, Silver Linings Playbook) and the intensity of the subject matter can inadvertently create characters that are intensely dislikable or difficult to relate to. The key ingredient in this film is a delicately executed script and spot-on casting. I adore Mark Ruffalo but he makes it difficult not to like him. He has an easy warmth, an affability and vulnerability that makes it possible for him to win an audience over against all odds. He is above all; human in his approach to characters. And he is still very much The Hulk here in a sense; a man at the mercy of his very intense emotions, struggling to keep them in check.
Via a very personal story, this film points to the very real issue that for many cases of mental illness there is no magic pill to make it all go away. Maintenance and recovery are very personal things. Sometimes recovery is not possible. What works for one does not necessarily work for another. It is a hard road for all who travel it and this is just one journey that we are looking through the keyhole at.
Some have slammed this film as being too light, too funny, claiming that mental illness is much darker than it is presented here and that Forbes should have delved deeper. But I think that her take on it is incredibly important for this precise reason; mental illness is dark, it seems a hopeless road for those who suffer it. If one cannot laugh, if one cannot find the silver lining, if one cannot cling to lightness, is the struggle for recovery not a hopeless one then?
This film is bursting with rich emotional detail and there is nothing sentimental or self-indulgent about Forbes’ approach. The scenes are playful yet intensely emotional and you will laugh, cringe and cry. Those who have never had any experience with mental illness may not connect with it, but I defy anyone not to try.
This is an impressive debut from Maya Forbes and a raw and interesting insight into living with mental illness.