Serious depictions of mental illness can be tough to watch on the big screen—so how about watching a bipolar father in charge of two young daughters? That’s the challenge taken on with humor by Infinitely Polar Bear, which debuted at Sundance over the weekend. The film takes difficult material, softens it only slightly, and somehow pulls it off, creating one of this year’s first Sundance hits.
The premise is that the manic-depressive and wildly eccentric Cameron (Mark Ruffalo) agrees to take primary care of his two daughters for 18 months. Meanwhile, his estranged wife (Zoe Saldana) goes to New York to earn an MBA at Columbia University in a bid to lift herself and her family out of poverty.
Watching Cameron in action is nerve-wracking, because you keep waiting for things to go horribly wrong. When depressed, he lets the laundry and dishes pile up, and fails to get up to take the children to school on time. But it’s the manic phases that are truly scary, because you don’t really know what Cameron will do. He abandons the children to go on a wild drinking binge at one point, coming back to find himself locked out by his daughters. In another episode, driving erratically, he bundles the girls to a stranger’s home (once family property) and gets in a fight with the owner. For parents, the film plays, in parts, like a horror movie.
But it is made endearing by how hard Cameron tries, despite his failures, and keeps trying. Cameron’s oddities are also an asset; he is an inventive and resourceful father. He cooks elaborate meals and sews costumes. Dressed in bizarre outfits, he takes his children and their friends on grand adventures in the woods, and teaches them karate. It may sound unbearably sweet, but it isn’t, because you never know when Cameron is going to lose control and start screaming.
Ruffalo dominates the film and plays the bipolarity with skill. The story is loosely autobiographical, based on the childhood of debut director Maya Forbes, a producer and television writer who got her start on The Larry Sanders Show. Also important to the film are the two daughters, always ready to talk back to their unpredictable father, and very believably played by Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide. The film may stretch a bit to reach its happy ending, but that seems allowable for a film that is ultimately about the redeeming power of parental responsibility.