Infinitely Polar Bear Brings Change To Mind.
Earlier last week I went to a screening of Infinitely Polar Bear, a new film from director Maya Forbes about a biracial family navigating the sometime treacherous complexities of mental illness. Mark Ruffalo plays Cameron Stuart, a “blue-blooded” New Englander with bipolar disorder. His wife Maggie, played by Zoe Saldana, and their two adorable young girls (Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide) round out the cast of this paradigm, giving the audience multi-layered insight into both the positive and negative realities of being married to and raised by a man with manic depression. At the intersection of race and class lives this American story, with all the familiar challenges you would expect (financial, socio-economic, domestic and child–rearing) but depicted in a surprisingly unexpected way verging on brilliant. The choices these people have to make are difficult and their sacrifices are gigantic, but so is their love—something that’s truly evident in the most frustrating and borderline-abusive moments.
Forbes begins her autobiographic tale with her father having a psychotic breakdown in 1978. He is forced to go to a mental institution for treatment while Maggie has to make ends meet and provide for the two girls. With a low paying job that keeps them at the “poverty line,” despite Cameron’s Bostonian lineage of great wealth, Maggie decides to go to Columbia University to earn her MBA. This forces the family into a long distance relationship where Cameron, (now out of the mental institution) becomes the main caretaker for his two daughters while Maggie travels from NYC to Boston every weekend. Instead of relying on corduroy bell-bottoms and wide-collared polyester shirts to suggest the time period, Forbes subtly lets the audience into a world set 40 years ago through the obstacles Cameron and Maggie face. A stay-at-home dad depending on his wife to be the sole breadwinner and a mother who dares to leave her children behind to pursue her career goals is met with societal judgment and disapproval indicative of the time. Even with an MBA, Maggie faces considerable adversity when trying to get hired by top firms in Boston. She is ostracized for having small children at home (a reality many woman still face today despite the Pew Research Center finding that 4 out of 10 American households have women as the main/only source of income). The audience sees both adults struggle to come to terms with the change in responsibilities and personal sacrifices required of them to make this arrangement work.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this film is the way it portrays mental illness. As the seasons change so do the various stages of Cameron’s manic depression. Forbes expertly shows the progression of this illness and how covertly it builds in Cameron through his energy, his outbursts, his falling in and out of daily routine and his internal battle with consistntly taking his medication. Despite that their marriage shifts to an ambiguous place, Maggie seems lovingly resolute in her acceptance of the man she married and all the responsibility that is placed at her feet because of his condition. This portrayal of manic depression struck me as truthful. The film did not disguise the ugly chaos that is often a factor in dealing with mental illness, but refusing to leave it at just that, Forbes successfully humanizes it, breaking through the stigma associated on the surface to a deeper understanding and compassion for its multiplicity. It’s not all bad; it’s not all dangerous; it’s much more about lovable imperfect people not intentionally hurting those they love (afterall…its is a comedy!).
Zoe Saldana skillfully plays Maggie, a woman who rivals the empathic capacity of Mother Theresa. Saldana is firmly grounded in her position as the rock of the family, communicating the weight of her burden only to the audience, a subtext hidden in each emotionally connected scene she has on screen. Equally captivating, Mark Ruffalo triumphs as Cameron, giving a realistic performance that embodied this condition without falling into the trap of an uninspired or predictable characterization. The two girls were also magnificent as they grappled with being mixed raced kids in poverty with an acute awareness of their family’s confusing and comparative differences.
The film’s controversial subject matter couldn’t be more timely. Between mass shootings, global terrorism, gender or racial identity crisis, and the disproportionate amount of people suffering from mental illness that are imprisoned instead of treated in this country, it appears mental health and society’s refusal to recognize it’s direct relationship to total health, has had a catastrophic impact overall. Infinitely Polar Bear immediately made me think of my favorite charity Bring Change 2 Mind. This non- profit organization was started by Glenn Close and Fountain House with a mission “to end the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness through widely distributed Public Education Materials based on the latest scientific insights and [are] measured for effectiveness.” The organization is also working with Denver Bronco wide-receiver Brandon Marshall’s Project375, which specifically focuses on helping men talk about and get treated for mental illness in their communities with a mantra that instills in them that they are stronger than stigma.
“Over the past thirty years, the rate of suicide among men has been three to four times that of women. Traditionally, however, men have shied away from talking about their feelings as it is viewed as negative and weak. In addition to a reluctance to seek help, men have higher levels of isolation, and of drug and alcohol misuse; are at a greater risk for homelessness; display more externalized and destructive behaviors; and are more involved with the criminal justice system.”
In secrecy, behind closed doors, mental illness is running rampant and not being acknowledged—affecting families from all walks of life. Sadly, the collective awareness around this issue has not grown much from the times reflected in Infinitely Polar Bear. But thanks to filmmakers like Maya Forbes and organizations like BC2M, the public perception is beginning to shift, hopefully paving the way for reform in our healthcare and criminal justice systems. If you want to get involved by giving your time, go to the Bring Change 2 Mind website, or you can donate here.