Infinitely Polar Bear

Jordan over at Epileptic Moondancer wrote about this great film he saw, and he made me want to see it too, only, it never came. Well, not quite never, since it’s here now, only it’s just playing at our local art-house theatre (shout out, Bytowne, we love you!) and as far as I can tell, didn’t get much in the way of a release.

And that’s too bad because Mark Ruffalo, whom I normally loathe, does a bang-up job of portraying a husband and father who struggles with the mental illness that is now known as bi-polar (not so much in the 70s, when this film is set). His wife (a strong Zoe Saldana) married him optimistically and learns about his disease the hard way. In the throes of a manic phase he’s erratic at best, and scares his wife and two young daughters. They lose him to a psychiatric ward, and a FIPHD1iOek65hl6LdUL2HQhalfway house, and to loads of mood-altering medications, and in his quest to come back to them, he agrees to care for his girls while his wife goes off to NYC to get a business degree and a real shot at a job. She’s putting an awful lot of faith in a man who, most days, doesn’t seem capable of caring even for himself, but this is what he needs, and what their family needs, and needs must.

It’s easy to applaud this intimate and sympathetic look at a challenging illness. Writer-director Maya Forbes cast her own daughter in the fictionalized version of herself, a young girl caught between a father she dearly loves and a disease she doesn’t fully understand. This is clearly a deeply personal movie, stemming from a deeply personal place. And if this is how she experienced her father’s mental illness, then good for her. The movie makes it seem more like a quirky inconvenience than the devastating illness I know it to be, but if you ever have the misfortune of this diagnosis, then I fully hope that you get the bi-polar that Forbes lived with, and not the one I did.

Coming out of the theatre, Sean asked what I thought. And I genuinely thought it was a brilliant kq-infinitely-polar-bear-videothumbmovie, so well-acted by all involved. I also think it makes bi-polar look kind of fun. And the thing is, like any mental illness, and like many illnesses period, I suppose, the symptoms and severity and experience will vary from person to person. So while some may enjoy riding bicycles in bathing suits as their low, when I lived with someone who was bi-polar, I spent long months in a sad, scary, violent, life-shattering space. It’s not always as fun as it looks in the movies.

But Mark Ruffalo does an excellent job of hitting both highs and lows with some subtlety, playing each note, finding the heartbreak. Saldana is vulnerable, and even though I never stopped asking myself how she could leave her kids alone with this man, I still felt warmth toward her for trying so hard to make bi-polar just another thing to live with. I’m still queasy about movies that romanticize mental illness, but I’m also blown away by some fantastic performances that thrive and come alive despite a saccharine script.

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21 thoughts on “Infinitely Polar Bear

  1. Brittani

    Great review! My local art house gets this on Friday, and I hope I get to see it ASAP. Ruffalo is an actor I did not like 10 years ago, but he’s grown on me so much. I love the guy now.

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  2. Billy

    Great piece, Jay, and I agree with your above commenter on Ruffalo growing on me. I am always a little dubious when movies romanticise and fun-ise a difficult illness. On the other hand, perhaps what matters is that it becomes mainstream, the word is used, people start lowering their defences and running away scared when they hear the word. Maybe it’s the beginning, like with Rain Man and what it did for autism, of working towards the end of a stigma? I don’t know. I’m curious to see it though, so thanks, as usual.

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    1. Jay Post author

      I absolutely agree on both points – that I’m having to rethink Ruffalo, and that I’m at least glad we’re talking about it, and I’m glad we can move away from the kind of movies that make mental illness out to be some huge traumatic event, but maybe we’re just going too far in the other direction.

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      1. Jordan Dodd

        That is what I liked most about it Jay, your second point. It doesn’t make the mentally ill guy a psycho killer or anything dumb like that. I think this movie will do its small part in removing the stigma from mental health issues, which needs to keep happening.

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  3. J.

    Aw man – you loathe Mark Ruffalo? How’s that possible?

    Anyway, I’m keen to see this one. Dare say I will when it appears on Netflix or something. It also reminds me that I watched that recent Nina Simone documentary. A very different experience.

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  4. Jordan Dodd

    Thanks for the link love! 🙂

    Reading this has put it into perspective for me a little bit, though I definitely didn’t come out thinking it showed bi-polar as fun. It was real. The highs of bi-polar do look fun, there is no getting around that. This movie is so real it made my mother cry!

    I do hear what you are saying about leaving her kids with him. But structure is often the best remedy for any mental illness – I know when I have it, I am a much healthier person – and perhaps her love for him tinted her glasses a bit. Definitely a risky move but I didn’t think it came across as unbelievable… I don’t think you said that anyway.

    Great review of a great movie. Ruffalo’s best IMO.

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    1. Jay Post author

      Well I think even the ‘unbelievable’ stuff still felt truthful. Like, you could always see the reasoning even if you couldn’t agree with it. And I loved that it showed him as this imperfect parent in a way that, to me, reminded us that ALL parents are imperfect. This dad, who was nothing but loving even in his worst moments, was not always well and not always right, but he was always trying. Everybody has shit to deal with, and I liked how they portrayed his mental illness as just one of many things this particular family deals with. Hard, obviously, but doable.

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      1. Jordan Dodd

        That’s an interesting way to look at it. You’re right, no parent is perfect, but most try no matter what, and like you said even at his worst he was always loving and trying.

        Great post again Jay. I’m still so shocked a movie came to Australia so long before North America!!! That is so backwards!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. ruth

    You don’t like Ruffalo normally? Interesting, I actually never paid attention to him until fairly recently. I think he’s likable and a good actor, though I don’t go out of my way to see his movies. I might give this a shot though if it’s on Netflix.

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    1. Jay Post author

      I don’t. I think maybe Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is to be blame, which he followed up with 13 Going on 30.

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