Mark Ruffalo plays Cam Stuart, a loving father of two young daughters: Amelia and Faith (played respectively by Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide). He comes from a wealthy and respected Bostonian family, but since his mother controls all the money and she’s picky about how much the rest of the family gets, Cam and his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) have to work for a living. The problem is Cam has bipolar disorder (known as manic-depressive illness in the 1970s, when the movie is set) and has trouble holding down a steady job, making Maggie the main breadwinner. But because she’s a black woman, and this is the 70s, she has to go back to school to get a higher degree in order to support the family. This leaves Cam to raise Amelia and Faith while struggling to keep his illness in check.
Mental illness is a tricky subject for most media to deal with, and few movies have portrayed those with them in a realistic manner (*coughcough*Silver Linings Playbook*coughcough*), although some of the more recent ones have cleaved a bit closer to reality, such as Clair Danes’ character Carrie Mathison in Homeland. Although it occasionally ventures a bit too far into ‘overly heart-warming’ territory in order to tug on viewer’s heartstrings, Infinitely Polar Bear pleased me by not overly romanticizing mental illness and by showing it in a reasonably realistic manner. During his highpoint, Cam is ‘manic’ in every sense of the word, deciding to do anything from barraging into his long-vacated childhood home without thought of the current occupants or to suddenly turn his bedroom into a bicycle repair shop. When he’s down, he may forget to buy food for himself and his children. Since this is the 70s, the illness is very poorly understood and medication is only non-existent, and medical practice regarding mental health patients is primitive, to say the least.
Yet Cam’s defining characteristic is not his illness but his love for his family. His illness certainly complicates his relationships with them, but it is shown as merely a fact of life for him. And of course because this is a dramadey film based around family it has a number of heartwarming family moments which, even if they’re sometimes a bit sappier than is strictly necessary, they never feel forced or artificial. It is these two traits that I like most about the film, and I hope that this film can serve as an example for Hollywood as a proper way to deal with mental illness (and other prickly subjects) in cinema.