Skip to main content
film review

Mark Ruffalo, left, as Cam Stuart, Imogene Wolodarsky, middle, as Amelia Stuart and Ashley Aufderheide as Faith Stuart in a feel-good movie about a family dealing with a diagnosis that has some poignant moments.Claire Folger

Maya Forbes' autobiographical film, Infinitely Polar Bear, is based on a period in her childhood when she and her sister were left in the care of their father, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It's ultimately a feel-good movie with some poignant moments: Forbes went on to graduate from Harvard and become a successful television and film writer-producer, with credits ranging from The Larry Sanders Show to Monsters vs Aliens. While less romantic than Silver Linings Playbook, Infinitely Polar Bear is also about the dangerously fun side of mania.

Central to the story is the portrait of Cam, relative to a rich Boston family, who, we learn in the Super 8 home movie prologue, was first diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder, as it was then known, in 1967. His African-American fiancée, Maggie (Zoe Saldana), took his condition in stride, enjoying Cam's unpredictable, exuberant nature.

Eleven years later, Maggie and Cam are married and all grown up with two school-age daughters, Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky, the director's daughter) and her little sister, Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) – and Cam's unpredictability is a lot less charming.

When Cam, wearing only his red Speedo and a matching headband, chases his wife and children into the car and then dismantles the engine so they can't escape, it's clear things aren't going well. He ends up in a psychiatric hospital, emerging heavier and mentally slower from drugs, with an ever-present cigarette in hand. Later, he takes up residence in a halfway house and Maggie is compelled to give up their country home to move into a small Boston apartment.

Cam wants to reconcile, but Maggie wants to make more secure long-term plans. She can move to New York for 18 months and get an MBA at Columbia to secure the family's future, while Cam stays in Boston and looks after the girls. Given Maggie's high tolerance for risk, it's appropriate she ends up as a Wall Street investor, though her character is so thinly written, we're often left guessing as to her strategies.

Forbes shows scenes where Cam tries to pressure his wife to sleep with him again and Maggie reluctantly resisting, though these scenes are inconsistent with the child's point of view. We're never clear whether she intends to keep the family together or is laying the foundation for her exit strategy.

Most of the film is set over the 18 months of their separation, with Maggie visiting on weekends to straighten out Cam's latest mess. Every few scenes, Forbes tries to remind us that Cam's condition is worrisome. Early on, he puts the girls to bed and heads out to a bar, where we see him ordering round after round for dozens of new friends before tottering home, where he gets a stern scolding from Faith, who has put a chain lock on the door.

Mostly, though, Cam is just excitingly unpredictable. He turns on the charm when buying a used car, chases nervous neighbours around the apartment building in his efforts to be helpful and stays up all night to make his daughter a flamenco dress for a school performance.

No doubt, people with mania, in its less extreme forms, can be energetic, creative and charismatic, but Ruffalo's uncharacteristically broad performance feels mostly about helping Forbes send a valentine to her late father. Although he has some specific Boston blue-blood dandyish tics, Cam is an awfully familiar type, an incompetent-but-loving father with grandiose ideas, kept earthbound by responsibility and his loving family.

When Ruffalo's character wears attention-grabbing colourful outfits, waves his arms about and speaks too loudly, it brings to mind all those eighties sitcoms about well-intended bumbling dads – Growing Pains, Full House and Who's the Boss? – that were on television contemporaneously within the period of Forbes memoir.

Perhaps the issue is less about what Forbes embellished and left out than the relationship between our personal memories and what we internalize from television: Where do real memories end and TV-family fantasies begin?