Family's bipolar drama is a laughing matter

Infinitely Polar Bear (M). Director: Maya Forbes. Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Imogene Wolodarsky, Ashley Aufderheide. 88 minutes

Mental illness is not a laughing matter. Except when it is. David O. Russell's 2012 mental illness-themed romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook proved that a film could treat its afflicted characters with warmth and dignity, while also celebrating the humour that arises from said characters' (extra)ordinary human foibles. Infinitely Polar Bear achieves something similar, against a more domestic backdrop.

Set in 1970s Boston, the film centres on Cameron (Ruffalo), a man with bipolar disorder who takes on the sole care of his two young daughters, while their mother Maggie (Saldana) is in New York, studying, in pursuit of a career in order to better support them. The sensitive and strong-willed girls do not make Cameron's task easy; but neither are their mother's absence and their father's illness easy on them.

Some critics have worried that the film's generally sweet, humorous tone risks making light of Cameron's illness, which is severe enough that he has been institutionalised at least once. He is on lithium but tends to neglect it, preferring to self-medicate with alcohol. The character's love for his wife and his daughters is palpable, but there is no denying that at times he is irresponsible, to say the least.

It's no accident though that all of this is viewed through a glaze of nostalgia, even naivety. The film is a dramatised version of writer-director Forbes' childhood, and Amelia, the elder of Cameron and Maggie's girls (and played by Forbes' own daughter, Wolodarsky), is a version of Forbes herself. Amelia also narrates the film, so it's fair to say the story is literally being told by the filmmaker's inner child.

No wonder then that Cameron, who is as prone to aggressive outbursts and emotionally manipulative behaviour as he is to endearing eccentricity and genuine tenderness, is portrayed with a sense of deep, complicated affection. Ruffalo excels in the role, balancing reams of manic energy against a deep well of pathos. It is a powerful performance that humanises a complex character.

He is matched in this effort by the remarkable performances of Wolodarsky and Aufderheide (who plays Amelia's younger sister, Faith), who go toe-to-toe with the seasoned character actor and prove worthy foils in both comedic and dramatic terms. The relationship between Cameron and his daughters is the film's emotional fulcrum and all three actors more than do it justice.

Vitally, Forbes also pays careful attention to the would-be working mother Maggie's emotional arc: her struggle to get a job in a male-dominated business world; her agony at being away from her daughters; her patience with and even love for Cameron, that is tempered by a desire for self-preservation and to protect her daughters. Ruffalo may be the film's star, but Saldana's Maggie is its unsung hero.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Maya Forbes, Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Imogene Wolodarsky, Ashley Aufderheide, bipolar

 

 

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