In general, the movies have a pretty spotty record for portraying mental illness; for every nuanced take like "Two Days, One Night," there's a "Silver Linings Playbook," treating its characters' emotional disorders as an obstacle that can be overcome if they're just plucky enough. Falling somewhere in the middle is writer-director Maya Forbes' semi-autobiographical drama, "Infinitely Polar Bear," based on her childhood growing up in 1970's Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a bipolar father.
Mark Ruffalo plays Cam, a diagnosed manic-depressive faced for the first time with being the chief caregiver for his two daughters when their mother, Maggie (Zoe Saldana), leaves home to pursue an 18-month MBA program at Columbia University in the hopes of finding a better job to provide for their family. Maggie visits as many weekends as she can, but the distance requires that Cam raise Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) alone for the most part -- a formidable task considering the unpredictability of his illness.
In her directing debut, Forbes aims for charming slice-of-life dramedy over crafting a serious probe into the nature of manic-depressive behavior (the "polar bear" of the title comes from Faith's confusion over the term "bipolar"), and as such, the film occasionally threatens to become one of those movies arguing that suffering from mental illness is really just a case of being a misunderstood free-spirit. But the performances make up for the script's occasional shortcomings; Ruffalo never makes the mistake of only playing the illness, and he turns Cam into a real person. In contrasting Cam's childlike enthusiasm with his sometimes frightening tantrums, we feel both his daughters' love and exasperation in dealing with their father's constant highs and lows. Saldana is equally good, capturing the internal struggle of a woman putting all her trust in the man she married, hoping that he can find the strength to control his nature for the sake of their family.