There's no one right way to show mental illness in the movies, yet there are hundreds of ways to get it wrong. Even though certain disorders come with specific traits, a diagnosis is not a human being, and doomed is the actor who just cycles through symptoms, rather than working from the inside out. In writer-director Maya Forbes's debut, Infinitely Polar Bear, Mark Ruffalo plays a dad, diagnosed as manic-depressive, who suddenly faces the formidable task of being the chief caretaker of his two young daughters. What makes the performance work so beautifully is that he doesn't reduce his character to a series of behavioral tics: He's always a person first — with all the complexity and contradictions that implies — and not just a passive victim of his illness, a blank slate for it to scribble on. We ride his highs and lows with him just by looking into his eyes: We know where he's at every minute by reading their glittering recklessness or their chamomile calm.
Forbes, a longtime writer and producer for TV (and also the writer of Monsters vs. Aliens), drew from her own experience growing up in 1970s Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a manic-depressive father. Ruffalo's Cam Stuart gets a doozy of an introduction: He's romping around the grounds of the family's semi-rural house in shorts and a bathrobe, hooting and hollering as if to inflict his monumental high on all the world. It's clear that his wife, Maggie (Zoe Saldana), has had enough: She's packed the couple's two young daughters, Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide), into the car and is desperately trying to escape.
Cam isn't dangerous — at least not to anyone but himself — but he is wearying, and Maggie ends up holding the family together when he suffers the occasional breakdown, eventually moving herself and the girls from their idyllic woodsy home to a cramped apartment in Cambridge. Finally, in desperation, she applies to Columbia Business School, and gets in. Because she can't afford to take the kids with her, she begs Cam — who has only recently been sprung from a psychiatric hospital — to accept the responsibility of caring for them; she'll return to help out on weekends. He hesitates: Until now, he's been required to fulfill only the role of fun dad; he's even lost his job at the local public television station. Can a man who's so shakily unpredictable get his kids off to school on time and make their meals? He thinks he can do it; he's only partly right.
And yet things don't fall apart as drastically as you might think, or you might fear. Cam is stubborn about taking his meds, and he drinks too much, when he shouldn't be drinking at all. His blue-blood family refuses to help out financially, at least in any way that really matters. Much of what happens in Infinitely Polar Bear could be unbearably painful, but Forbes sees the cracked humor in everything: At one point Cam's stingy Yankee granny tries to give him a Bentley that would be so expensive to maintain that it's of no use to him; meanwhile, the girls have already piled into it, delighted that this car, unlike the junker he's been carting them around in, actually has a solid floor. You feel bad when it's taken away from them, but in this case, father really does know best.
He sometimes pulls off the impossible, too: Amelia and Faith are too embarrassed by their messy, chaotic apartment to invite friends over, but Cam finally persuades them to try it. At first, the visitors view the entropic surroundings skeptically. But it's not long before they discover it houses a wealth of riches, which include a roulette wheel, an original-cast recording of Guys and Dolls, and a genuine machete. Paradise!
At times Infinitely Polar Bear veers dangerously into what Pauline Kael once called "He's not crazy, he's special!" territory — you sometimes can't believe that growing up with such a troubled dad could be this awesomely great. The household, under his watch, looks as raucous as the set of Zoom must have been, a riot of open paint cans and craft projects sitting out to dry. But Forbes wants to make it clear that children are more resilient than we sometimes think, and that what may look like a not-so-great childhood doesn't necessarily have to be a deal breaker for life. She shapes Infinitely Polar Bear into something warm and believable. In an early scene, one of the film's most piercing, Maggie brings the girls to visit their dad at the psychiatric hospital: Overmedicated (or perhaps incorrectly medicated), he shuffles toward them, his face registering brief delight before settling back into an inexpressive smudge.
Ruffalo is so good, he can pull that off. We know what Cam's feeling, even when the drugs he's on are doing their damnedest to prevent him from feeling it. And Saldana matches him beat for beat: The look in Maggie's eyes, when she realizes that her children are seeing just a husk of the man they know and love, is a delicate jumble of protectiveness and tempered anguish. In a later scene, having graduated from Columbia but unable to find a job in Boston, she sums up the unspoken racism of the city with just one subtle line. Her frustration with her own husband's white-person view of the world bubbles to the surface, too. At one point she tells him outright, "When white people live in squalor, you're eccentric; when black people live in squalor, no one's charmed."
But nothing is the end of the world in Infinitely Polar Bear (which gets its title from Faith's confusion about the term "bipolar disorder"). No one escapes from this rocky family wilderness unscathed — but no one is irreparably damaged, either. In our own era, where so many parents seem to want to shield their kids not just from the world at large but from intense or complicated feelings, Infinitely Polar Bear stands as a reassurance that even in imperfect households, everything can still turn out all right. The key, maybe, is in laughing at what's truly ridiculous, and in laughing your way through what hurts, too.