Infinitely Polar Bear

Let me tell you, it’s hard to follow up Ordinary People, but this week, we’re taking a look at a film that covers some of the same ground!

Infinitely Polar Bear is a 2014 film that looks at a family living in 1970s Boston with a father diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Cam and Maggie (Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana) have been struggling to keep their family unit together through his hospitalizations and unstable living arrangements. However, when Maggie decides to pursue her MBA in New York City, Cam stays in Boston to care for their two daughters, something he hasn’t done since his breakdown.

An early, pre-hospitalization shot of Cam with his two daughters.

The film very quickly lays out what it wants to do: show you what bipolar disorder (or manic depression, as it’s sometimes called) is really like. There’s a brief description of what Cam has been through before we see him — he was a bright student, got married, started a family, but has recently been fired from his job. Initially, we see a somewhat playful depiction of his behavior — look! He’s taking his daughters out into the countryside! — but it quickly escalates.

A shot I’m sure was chosen for the WHAAAA? factor.

Next, we see Cam dressed bizarrely, speaking in a pressured fashion, and by all accounts showing behavior that the audience will be able to identify as mania. Though it’s unclear how much time passes between the two scenes, the jarring juxtaposition sets the mood for what the rest of the film will be like: following Cam throughout the episodes of his bipolar disorder, and their effect on the people closest to him.

Later, we see Maggie and the girls meet up with a very different version of Cam in the hospital. He’s heavily medicated and has none of the spirit or fervor of the Cam we saw at the beginning of the film. And though medication is often an important part of the treatment of bipolar disorder, the side effects can be prominent and unpleasant.

Cam, now under the effects of what we can safely assume is either lithium, haldol, or thorazine (or some combination of the three).

We continue to follow Cam’s recovery as he transitions to a halfway house, and then his own apartment. Meanwhile, Maggie is struggling to find work without a higher degree and can hardly pay the bills or the rent. Her difficult solution to this problem is to go to business school so she can provide for her family. The catch? Someone will have to watch the kids.

Cam, though hesitant to accept responsibility, eventually says yes, and this is the focus of most of the movie. Cam decides to stop taking the lithium he was prescribed in the hospital and self-medicates with alcohol, so we end up seeing Cam in various manic states throughout the movie.

One of Cam’s many projects — an example of an increase in goal-directed behavior.

Infinitely Polar Bear does an incredibly good job portraying symptoms of mania in a realistic way. Mania does not simply mean someone has more energy; mania is indicated clinically by a decreased need for sleep, an increased in goal-directed behavior, an inflated sense of self-importance, and pressured speech.

(If this description sounds cold and clinical, it’s because I’m lifting the diagnostic criteria for bipolar disorder right from the DSM-5.)

Importantly, we also see that Cam has a generally irritable mood during his manic states. Most folks with little familiarity with bipolar disorder imagine mania to be a “happy” state, as it is so often contrasted with depression, a “sad” state. But irritability and distractibility are some of the main features of a manic episode.

Cam displaying a decreased need for sleep.

There are a few periods in the film where Cam is depressed, the other pole of bipolar disorder. Though manic episodes tend to last for shorter periods of time than depressive episodes, I appreciate that the movie focused more on the mania. It’s important to show that the mania within bipolar disorder is not feeling happy, but a persistently elevated state that is difficult and often painful for the person to maintain.

A little on the nose, but I’ll take it.

My guess as to why this movie does such a great job? The father of the writer/director, Maya Forbes, had bipolar disorder. Infinitely Polar Bear is Forbes’ way of showing the world what it was like to grow up with a father who was at once entertaining and baffling — a fun father, but also an irresponsible one at times.

In an interview with NPR, Forbes points out something that I find incredibly powerful (and also relevant to this blog):

[My father] was not trying to hide who he was, and he said, you don’t have to hide the fact that I’m manic-depressive. You can tell people that’s who I am. It’s – explains a lot about your situation. And … coming out like that, not hiding, really got rid of the shame.

The first step of erasing stigma surrounding mental illness is to talk about it, and this film is a great example of that idea put into practice.

Once the girls tell their friends, they’re totally cool with it and move on to something else. If only we could all be like these kids!!

As wonderful as this all is, there are some stylistic things I have to call out. First of all, I spent a lot of time cringing at the two child actors — they are essentially screaming in every scene, and it got old quickly. The music underscoring the more touching moments was so cheesy that I actually rolled my eyes! It’s that kind of acoustic guitar music with lots of humming and clapping and it cheapened the nicer moments for me. Lastly, the story arc lacks a solid focus, making it difficult to follow through the twists and turns.

But I don’t want to be too negative!! I adore the way it’s filmed — the vibrant colors and framing make it feel playful, and the soundtrack (not the score!) and costuming help bring out that ’70s vibe. Additionally, Maya Forbes does not shy away from issues that were important to her own childhood, including racism, feminism, and growing up in a biracial family — and those aren’t themes you usually see dropped casually into movies.

If you found this interesting, then please give the film a watch! And look up all the interviews that Maya Forbes has given about this movie — I only quoted one here, but her life story is fascinating, and her perspective is unique. This is perhaps the only movie I’ve reviewed on this blog that portrays a mental illness with such compassion and insight, and for that reason, it deserves high praise.

Infinitely Polar Bear (2014): ★★★★ 1/2