Whenever I watch a movie or TV show where one or more of the characters is “afflicted” with mental illness, it is with both caution and cynicism. I brace myself for what often seems like an irresponsible representation of mental illness, as the characters typically don’t evoke or receive the sympathy or empathy they so readily deserve for being affected by a condition that drastically alters their quality of life. It is a difficult challenge to create characters with mental illness who are not only required to evoke strong, conflicting, confusing, disorganizing feelings from the audience, but, also have to express them, themselves. Creating and depicting a character with a specific mental illness adequately, accurately, and realistically is a profound challenge.
Consequently, I am not typically impressed with the way mental illnesses of all varieties have been portrayed. So often the manifestation of symptoms on screen are painfully distorted and misrepresented to support the plot, rather than to accurately represent the struggle that those afflicted actually endure. Thus it is an extremely difficult and nuanced undertaking to create a character that can clearly and successfully demonstrate the depth and magnitude of his distorted perceptions about himself, others, and the world, his odd, idiosyncratic behaviors in public and in private, and the mighty struggle to regulate his moods the way Mark Ruffalo did in the film, Infinitely Polar Bear, playing Cam Stuart, father of two young girls in a mixed race family in the suburbs of Boston.
Rather, the movie, told primarily from the perspective of Cam’s older daughter (written by and based on director Maya Forbes’ own experiences as a child with her bipolar father), focuses on how her father interacts with the family and how the family responds to him. What makes this story particularly gritty and compelling is that it is written by a grownup about her childhood experiences with a father whom she clearly loves, admires, but also recognizes as being impaired. There is a beauty and purity to the writing. Since it is a daughter writing about a slice in the life of her family, there is a poignant quality created by blurry, childlike references to the history and magnitude of her father’s condition. While the audience is not given background on whether Cam’s bipolar disorder ran in the family, how, when and where the symptoms first manifested, when he was diagnosed, and what kind of treatment he had received up to the point when the movie begins, what we are treated to is an exquisitely nuanced, painstaking portrayal of what it’s like to be a loving, doting father held captive by his disorder.
Maya Forbes, the writer and director of the film comes from a mixed race family (her mother black, her father white), which brings with it it’s own unique challenges. While being a mixed race family in 1978 is of course, notable, and could be a movie in its own right, the topic is barely noted in the film. Neither is the fact that the children’s mother, by default, must become the sole breadwinner to keep the family afloat, and does so by getting into and electing to attend Columbia University’s Business School in New York, which means she has to leave her daughters solely in their father’s care for the duration of business school.
Instead, the film stays focused on Cam and the trials, tribulations, strengths and limitations that come from battling a disorder and staying intact enough to keep your children safe, with only himself to fall back on. The fact that their “differentness” as a family reaches far beyond Cam’s illness, reflects how beautifully intact this family remained, even through the trying times that accompany all the obstacles they faced along the way, especially Cam’s illness.
For those of us who were also imprinted by life in the late 70’s and early 80’s there is both comfort and familiarity in the authenticity and attention paid to the attitudes, trends, fashions, laws, social rules and expectations during that period in American history. For example, Cam’s incredible dexterity with a lit cigarette, his total lack of awareness and disregard for how much and where he smoked, is and was so very reflective of the role cigarettes played in the lives of so many during that era. One can also appreciate – because it is one of the wonderful, effective, believable tools Mr. Ruffalo employs to create this character – how much cigarettes were and continue to be tools to medicate, distract, and soothe people who struggle with mental health. The facility with which Cam handles his always-lit cigarette, even while picking up, and carrying around his two young daughters is worthy of mention because it reflects the breadth of care, understanding and appreciation that Mark Ruffalo had for the character he portrays in this movie.
Neither under- nor overdone, Infinitely Polar Bear offers an especially refreshing portrayal of bipolar disorder. In bipolar disorder, it can be difficult to know whether it is the disorder itself that is causing the out-of-control mood swings or whether the condition is triggered by external factors such as drugs, alcohol, or stressful situations and relationships in general, as it can be hard to disentangle a bipolar disorder from other mood or psychotic disorders, especially when illicit substances are involved.
Which came first? What is causing what? Is a person with bipolar disorder trying to self-medicate with substances, or is a person who abuses substances creating the symptoms of bipolar disorder? Even when substance abuse stops, withdrawal and the new difficulties of living in the world can manifest in ways that are very similar to bipolar disorder.
In Infinitely Polar Bear, Cam’s “spirals” tend to include alcohol but don’t seem to be initiated by it. Mark Ruffalo’s portrayal as a man with bipolar disorder is so informed, so convincing that there is no way that his condition can be understood as anything other than an authentic bipolar disorder, which in its own right makes it a valuable educational tool for families who are trying to make sense of the erratic behavior of loved ones, even today.
Another element of the movie that is true to clinical practice with bipolar disorder is that the condition seems to mellow over time, unless you perpetuate the condition by self-medicating with illicit drugs and alcohol. Like Cam’s character, with age, wisdom, and improved impulse control, the ability to manage and regulate moods, keep stressful situations in perspective improves. The more experience you acquire, the better your mastery. True to life, over the course of the movie, we see Cam, his wife and his children learning to cope better with the idiosyncrasies that come with his disorder.
One of the more hopeful, uplifting and authentic aspects of the film is that it highlights the power of motivation to maintain the safety and sanctity of his family in the face of great adversity. Cam is able to learn to cope because of how important being a reliable, involved father and husband are to him. The power and purity of his motivation, when channeled, becomes a major factor in maintaining a consistent way of thinking and behaving. Cam’s family are all aware, for better or worse, that his methods, his thinking, and his behaviors will “always” be idiosyncratic, but that most importantly, they trust him to keep them safe. Infinitely Polar Bear is the story of how love can provide the incentive to get better. Mark Ruffalo’s performance is gritty, believable and most certainly Oscar-Worthy.