Anyone who has dealt up close and personal with mental illness will tell you it can be an unmitigated hell — a black hole that devours solutions faster than they can be hatched. Families wrecked by schizophrenia and manic depression discover, all too quickly, that frustrated applications of love and discipline and pills and despair tend to come up empty in the face of a condition that, by its very definition, defies all reason.
And yet, in film after film, the ravages of mental illness are portrayed as a kind of aggravated eccentricity, in which the crazy person, tugging at our deepest wells of sentimentality, acts as the sole barometer of our own inadequacies and moral cowardice: the insane as quixotically sane, tilting at windmills of social hypocrisy.
Such romanticism is bunk. When it comes to crazy in real life, silver linings are all-too-rare.
Writer and director Maya Forbes’ debut film, Infinitely Polar Bear, falls into this warm and fuzzy category of the insane as infinitely sane. The movie is a kind of love letter to her father, who suffered from manic depression. Forbes’ stand-in in this fictionalized account of her childhood is her own daughter, Imogene Wolodarsky, who plays 12-year-old Amelia Stuart; Ashley Aufderheide plays younger sister Faith.
As the film opens, Amelia’s mother, Maggie (Zoe Saldana), is forced to separate from her father, Cam (Mark Ruffalo), whose behavior has grown increasingly erratic. Cam enters a halfway house for a while, gets coked to the gills on lithium and goes flat as a crepe. And then, with plans to attend Columbia Business School, Maggie suggests that Cam stay in Boston, raising the girls, while she finishes her degree in New York.
Since his stunning breakout performance in You Can Count on Me (2000), Ruffalo has proven himself to be one of the most versatile and charming actors of his generation, capable of evoking a world of hurt with a raised eyebrow or disarming you completely with that crooked grin. And he is fantastic here — as a wacky, unhinged stay-at-home dad flying by the seat of his pants — but he’s serving a dangerous conceit.
At his most manic — haranguing neighbors, breaking and entering, starting wild projects, imploring his daughters to be free while also telling them to fuck off — Ruffalo’s Cam never once crosses the line into threat. His behaviors, outwardly dangerous, are wrapped in a warm glow of the merely weird. Even his alcoholic benders are played as cute. And the girls respond to his antics as all children respond, with an exasperated and embarrassed, “Daaad!”
What’s worse, Forbes’ film is so manically intent on deifying dad with this wonky cloak of aw-shucks heroism that we almost miss the way Maggie deviously manipulates his illness, by holding out the hope that, once she finishes school, they will all get back together as a happy family. Nope. Poor old Cam, endlessly ready to please, gets a kiss on the cheek as Maggie takes a job in the Big Apple. She does leave him the kids, though. Boston seems a nice place to raise kids.
I would never question the depth and difficulty of Forbes’ childhood experiences, though I do take issue with her rather sunshiny representation, especially as it delves, albeit in the shallowest of manners, into issue of race (Maggie is black, Cam is white) and sexism. Admirably, Forbes never casts herself or her family as victims, though in her insistence on the positive impact of her father’s behavior — in the grand adventure of bipolar dad — she whitewashes all complications. There are no shadows, just comic glare. The result is a giggling cruise through a scrapbook, in which the guide keeps telling us “it’s all good, it’s all good.” (Bijou Metro)