In a summer teeming with hollow sequels and whitewashed rom-coms, Maya Forbes’s Infinitely Polar Bear provides a welcome dose of reality—albeit through one of the year’s most larger than life characters.
His name is Cam Stuart, and he’s played with delicate tenderness by Mark Ruffalo. Following an idyllic prologue, easing us into the man-child’s playful idiosyncrasies—his manic-depression (as they called it) prevents him from holding down a steady job, but inspires bold wardrobe choices—we’re shown a man whose spirit has been shattered into a million little pieces. He’s anesthetized and institutionalized; a fella so hopped up on lithium he’s barely recognizable to his estranged wife, Maggie (Zoe Saldana), and their two young daughters Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide).
He’s released in 1978, and the girls seem to relish having their disarmingly kooky father around—that is, when it’s his turn to see them. But they’re also very poor, and thus relegated to a second-rate public school. When Maggie gets in to Columbia Business School, she decides to decamp from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and head to the big city for 18 months so she can score an MBA, and then secure a finance gig to fund an elite private school education for her children. But this also means leaving Amelia and Faith in the care of Cam.
And the impressionable young gals soon begin to grow wary of Cam’s unpredictable behavior. He’s a terrible hoarder and lax housekeeper, so his place, which they constantly brand a “shithole,” is crammed with more impractical antiques than your grandmother’s attic. He’s also a drinker and, in one alarming episode, leaves the house while the girls are asleep to get plastered at the local pub only to return to see them scared out of their minds.
“He does some things that one should not do, and you have to feel the humanity in it. I was very drawn to Mark’s innate goodness and his humanity,” says Forbes.
Ruffalo, for his part, welcomed the challenge of Cam, referring to his unorthodox rhythms as “one foot on the banana peel and the other in the grave”—a tightrope act worthy of Philippe Petit. And the 47-year-old actor had no trouble accessing the character. He acknowledges that manic-depression “runs in the family,” and that he himself has suffered with occasional bouts of depression.
“I have close family members who are manic, and weren’t diagnosed until much later in life,” Ruffalo says. “Yes, their behavior at times will get extreme, but no one was ever looking at it like that. It’s on a scale—it slides around—and you never really know if they’re in mania, or they’re just happy, or they’re sad, or they’re deeply depressed. Sometimes you think it’s like a movie, where you turn the switch on and turn the switch off, but it isn’t like that. It’s more like a ‘dimmer’ switch.”
Cam elicits an endless number of eye-rolls from his daughters for everything from being overly gregarious to their neighbors, to his cursing fits, to his outward expressions of love. It’s doubly strange considering that he hails from a Boston Brahmin family, a tried-and-true blue blood whose aristocratic snootiness is tempered by his affliction. It wasn’t easy to tap into for Ruffalo, a blue-collar fella from Kenosha, Wisconsin, who spent nine years tending bar prior to breaking into acting.
“The difficult part was his class and the worldview of somebody who came over on the Mayflower, whose family was so ultra-wealthy,” says Ruffalo. “You usually want to kill those guys. To capture those qualities and still have him be vibrant and original was tough, because that culture can really flatten people out. But it didn’t kill whatever was original in Cam.”
But Cam comes around. He starts taking his lithium more regularly, and his temper tantrums start to dissipate. Amelia and Faith also begin to warm to their father, seeing him for the (mostly) harmless, lovable weirdo that he is.
Ruffalo points to one moment in the film in particular where the two parties meet. “It’s all summed up in one scene where he says, ‘Who cares?! I’m bipolar, manic-depressive, whatever they’re calling it these days, but don’t not have friends or not have a life because of me! Tell them whatever!’ I think that attitude saved them all, that he was honest and open and willing to take the blame. He didn’t hide it.”
“That was something that really happened,” adds Forbes. “My father said, ‘You can tell people that I’m manic-depressive.’ And when I told my friends they didn’t care, and they loved coming to my apartment because it was filled with weird crap, and my father cooked us fun things.”
Yes, the story of Infinitely Polar Bear is all the more remarkable considering it really happened. Writer-director Forbes grew up with a Boston Brahmin father—he of the elite Forbes family, related to Secretary of State John Forbes Kerry—who suffered from bipolar disorder, and her mother Peggy Woodford Forbes left when she was 10 to attend Columbia Business School. She eventually became the first African American woman to start an investment management firm in the U.S.
Some critics have been critical of how the film handles race, since the children are biracial, yet race doesn’t really factor in much to the storyline. But Forbes says that’s just how things happened.
“I didn’t think about it at all as a kid,” she says. “I grew up in this apartment building that was extremely diverse, and my father’s WASPy, old money family loved my mother. I never felt any sense that they had anything but the utmost respect for her, and my family—and they had so much respect for my grandfather, who was a doctor and a Tuskegee Airman.”
Forbes says that some Hollywood insiders did urge her to change her mother in the film to a white woman, but she refused; in fact, she was offended.
“If you make the mother not African-American, you have a much bigger pool of actresses to draw from, and some people had suggested that to me,” Forbes says. “But my mother is black. I felt like that would be negating my mother, and who she is. I thought, ‘You’re asking me to kill my mother?’”
Despite being mainly set in 1978, Forbes’s film (and family) is also very progressive in its treatment of gender roles. It’s Zoe Saldana’s mother who’s gone off to provide for the family, while Ruffalo’s father is saddled with housekeeping duties.
“She knew that she could go out and be the breadwinner and that my father couldn’t do something like that and was better suited to the domestic sphere,” says Forbes.
“It’s happening way more now, and it’s much more accepted,” adds Ruffalo. “And look who came out of it? You have Maya Forbes and China Forbes [singer of Pink Martini]—these two incredibly talented, beautiful women with vibrant careers and great families. I wish both my girls would end up like these two women.” The task of playing young Maya fell on the shoulders of Imogene Wolodarsky, Forbes’s real-life daughter with the film’s co-producer, Wally Wolodarsky. But young Imogene does a fine job in her first screen role, going toe-to-toe with Ruffalo in several knock-down, drag-out fights.“It was hard, but it was a very close-to-home character. I could understand this character,” says Imogene. “At the same time, I felt there was a lot riding on it and I had to do very well. It was strange to be directed by your mother!”
Most of all, Infinitely Polar Bear disabuses people of the notion that bipolar disorder is something to be ashamed of. Once Amelia and Faith begin openly acknowledging Cam’s condition and included him in their lives more, he’s a changed man and his mental health stabilizes. The stigma is lifted.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 2.6 percent of the U.S. adult population suffers from bipolar disorder, and one in five patients with bipolar disorder will commit suicide. It’s a condition that affects about 5.7 million American adults, and most people know someone who’s suffering from it.
“Being bipolar is bigger than just the person; it has effects on the family,” says Forbes. “I would say to not be ashamed. If people aren’t ashamed, it’s a part of the conversation, and people don’t feel they have to hide it, then you can try to manage your illness and find the help you need.”