One moment, the person is loving and hyper, but a few seconds later he can suddenly become violent and depressed. These episodes have no pattern, but their effects last far longer than it takes for the person’s mood to change.
A similar heart-wrenching and frightening scene opens Infinitely Polar Bear, Maya Forbes’ auto-biographical drama about a bipolar father and husband. Cameron (Mark Ruffalo), the manic depressive, is outside in freezing temperatures sporting only his underwear as his wife, Maggie (Zoe Saldana), and two daughters attempt to flee in the family car. Cameron lifts the hood and rips out a mechanism that stops Maggie from starting the vehicle. He later violently attempts to get in by ripping open the doors while Maggie pulls her daughters close and says, “This is not your father!”
It’s true that Cameron is mostly well-intentioned, but his disease often gets the best of him. After leaving a mental institution, Cameron is forced to raise the girls when Maggie, the breadwinner, leaves to complete her degree. Thinking that routine and responsibility will help Cameron with his condition, Maggie goes to New York as her husband stays in Boston to raise and take care of the children.
The subject matter of this film is inherently affecting and even funny, but what makes Infinitely Polar Bear a successful directorial debut is the great lead performance by Mark Ruffalo. He makes Cameron funny but not a joke; frightening but not a cartoon. We believe every tonal shift. Without Ruffalo, Infinitely Polar Bear would have been unwatchable, but with him we can’t take our eyes off of the screen. He is the heart and soul of this film.
Other aspects never rise to Ruffalo’s level, because Forbes refuses to fully engage with some of her half-baked ideas. With a signature grainy 70s look, and a soundtrack featuring the 50s and 60s music that Cameron would have listened to in his youth, the film is mostly a convincing period piece but one that doesn’t develop its race and gender politics. Other than a few gags and plot points where the movie recognizes mainstream prejudices during the 70s, nothing is done with the fact that Cameron is a stay-at-home dad while his wife is the provider: a frowned upon subversion of conventional gender roles. The daughters also wrestle with their racial identity, but these themes only appear periodically and lead to no payoff or meaningful takeaway.
Despite some schizophrenic storytelling, I found this to be a delightful little flick. Its ambitions may be small and some of its formal attributes simplistic, like the heavy reliance on music and faux home videos, but it’s nice to see a movie that tackles dark subject matter without the bipolar extremes of constant miserabilism or contrived happiness. It’s a film about manic depression that is bipolar: warmly lovable and coldly sad.