In the spirit of my ongoing selfless mission to humanity I offer a review of the movie Infinitely Polar Bear— a good film almost no one will see because it is showing on so few screens—whereas every suburban multiplex will offer the latest superhero movie for children, or adults with childlike minds, on multiple screens. In the Orlando area it is only playing at Winter Park Village.
Infinitely Polar Bear, set in the late-1970s, is about a man rearing his two young daughters alone for 18-months while their mother moves from Boston to New York to earn her MBA at Columbia. The hitch is that this man was diagnosed bipolar a decade earlier and hasn’t done any responsible work for years.
As I watched this film I had a feeling that it was based on a true story. A little research afterward revealed that my hunch was correct. It was essentially the story of writer/director Maya Forbes, her parents and her younger sister.
I knew the outline of the plot beforehand and knew that it had gotten favorable reviews. I was especially interested in the bipolar angle as both of my parents were bipolar—and I probably suffer a touch of Bipolar II or Cyclothymia myself.
My mother had many hospitalizations. However, appreciating my father’s condition was something which did not occur to me until after I had worked in mental health for many years myself and had observed his moods and behavior cycle again and again. He had vast mood swings which cycled on a remarkably consistent 3-year basis. However, his raging moods never got him in any serious trouble and he was always able to hold a responsible job. He remained undiagnosed and unmedicated in an era before before the popularization of mental health. He once confessed that he knew something was wrong but did not have a name for it, and it obviously took a tremendous effort on his part to maintain some emotional equilibrium.
Many bipolars are too disorganized during their manic phase to maintain employment. They typically engage in risk taking behavior, substance abuse and over-spending. They sleep little, talk too much and become grandiose. Some lose touch with reality altogether. They become delusional and sometimes psychotic. Relationships and jobs built over years can be wrecked in just a few weeks. It is frequently misdiagnosed and only effects 1 to 2% of the population—but it is a dangerous illness in that about 15% of those diagnosed bipolar will succeed in committing suicide.
The bipolar dad in this movie is a bright, creative man from an old Boston family. His background is one of wealth and privilege. At one point he mentions being thrown out of Harvard and his older daughter says, “I thought you were thrown out of Exeter.” And he says, “Actually I was thrown out of both schools” and then adds (like it should make a difference) “for different reasons.” He’s got the manic energy, humor and creativity that many bipolars have down pat—likewise the frustration, reluctance to take medication, alcohol abuse and explosive anger. The depressed phase is less convincing—but that demonstrates the tremendous challenge in showing states that are largely internal.
The movie proceeds in a series of vignettes, and I kept wondering where it was ultimately headed. Mark Ruffalo does a solid job portraying the chain-smoking, foul-mouthed bipolar dad—likewise Zoe Saldana as the mom—but the two kids who play the daughters are absolutely terrific. They are wonderfully vulnerable and innocent. They love their dad even though he is often an embarrassment. And like so many children of impaired parents they become codependent caregivers—taking on the hopeless task of parenting their parent.
This movie is not always easy to watch. There are uncomfortable moments dealing with the dad’s irresponsibility, frustration and rage—and one wonders if the story will end tragically. But ultimately, the dad is redeemed by the task of taking care of his daughters. His self-centeredness is transformed by love. Mom returns from her educational hiatus and wants to take the kids back to New York with her where she’s found a job, and one poignant moment toward the end shows the kids feeling guilty because of their dad’s feeling of abandonment. They have gradually morphed into little worldly cynics—but they are still kids, and they still love their dad.
In this movie Love does win in the end.