Mental illness in film is a really hard thing to depict because every single experience is different, there is still large stigma around it, and it is hard to equate someone’s suffering when you haven’t suffered something similar. Many of the more successful movies intricately weave their own backstory in order to provide an insight to people plighted by a mental disease and how they move forward with their struggles. Maya Forbes, in her directorial debut, enthuses her own past with this saccrine yet sensitive film – Infinitely Polar Bear.
Infinitely Polar Bear revolves around a family of four whose father Cam is suffering from bipolar disorder. After a manic episode, mother Maggie decides it’s best for them to separate and takes their daughters Amelia and Faith whilst Cam gets rehab. Unfortunately, finances are slim and Maggie decides to enter a business school for eighteen months in order to get qualifications and a better job. Cam is left in charge of Amelia and Maggie in this sweet portrait of living with mental illness whilst trying to raise a family.
There isn’t a review of this film that doesn’t start, or at least mention, Mark Ruffalo as one of the greatest actors on the planet. That’s because it’s true. It’s so true that sometimes just looking at his face makes you quake with anger at how bloody brilliant he is (my breast constantly quiver with jealousy.) As Dan, Ruffalo is this treasure of a performer whose kinetic energy drives this near pitch-perfect depiction of bipolar. Able to handle the mania with the depression, the normalised states and the extremes, Ruffalo’s nuanced performance is breathtakingly real, poignant, and human. Forbe’s real lie daughter Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide as daughters Faith and Amelia are treasures despite having no prior acting experience. They are charming, funny, and ferocious, adding innocence and chemistry alongside Ruffalo’s performance. Don’t forget Zoe Salanda who is steadfast as mother Maggie, trying to accumulate stability for her family.
Forbes delicate script and story-telling is remarkable, drawing on her own experience with her father to tell the tale. Perhaps using her own history as the backbone for this film elevates it into one of the greatest because it never relies on clichés nor skim over the facts to be an Oscar-bait movie on mental illness. Instead, Forbes takes you into this world where these daughters and this father try to get along despite their differences. The biggest dramatic point is each other’s lack of understanding – the daughters who can’t understand their fathers “eccentricity” and a father who can’t get why things keep falling apart and his daughters hate him. The art of getting it right is depicting both the character’s growth is never assigning blame. Dan is not a heinous father, whittling away their innocence because of his bipolar nor are the children bratty for getting frustrated at their situation. Similarly, Maggie isn’t abhorrent for choosing to educate herself to provide for all of them in the future. Whilst there are tensions and extremities here, Forbes intellectually makes Infinitely Polar Bear a charming exploration of this different family but never scrutinises anyone involved.
A tender, sophisticated movie that has a big heart, Forbes has done wonders by introspectively weaving the emotion of her past and enhancing it gloriously for the screen. The aspect of a chaotic family still brimming with unconditional love gifts this movie a poetic weight that is life-affirming, warming, and humorous too. The warmth radiated from this explicitly good family unit, if albeit dysfunctional, allows Infinitely Polar Bear to work without exploiting mental illness. With some impressive, realistic performances, led by Mark Ruffalo, the film is a high-note for Forbes in a glorious directorial debut. Make sure you catch this impressive feature.