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Based on director Maya Forbes’ own childhood, Infinitely Polar Bear (2014) is an honest and bittersweet depiction of Cam Stuart’s (Mark Ruffalo) struggle with manic depression and his on-going battle to maintain his family’s love. He is confronted with the challenge to raise his two daughters (played by the adorable Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide) while his wife-not-so-wife-maybe-wife (Zoe Saldana) goes off to Columbia to finish a business degree.
As an actor, Mark Ruffalo is often cast in sweet guy-next-door roles, sitting with Jennifer Garner on the swings while they converse about their childhood memories (13 Going On 30). While arguably Ruffalo as Cam Stuart is nothing more than a malleable extension of his usual roles, he is still presented as a beautiful juxtaposition of this “sweet guy” persona. This contrasted characterisation of Cam Stuart is consistently seen smoking and drinking throughout the film, while at times, finding himself grappling with his role as a father.
Forbes immediately depicts Cam as an unemployed, unstable and cynical mess in the film’s opening. Hiss mental illness is visually enhanced by the consistent use of long shots and mid-shots to contrast his unusual actions to the mise-en-scene of average Boston city life or the natural and calm scenery of the country.
The visual aesthetic is striking, and the almost immediate use of red and blue to contrast Cam’s mental struggle is an admirable and subtle touch to the viewer’s eyes. The beautiful Maggie Stuart (Zoe Saldana) is frequently dressed to oppose Cam’s own attire and to contrast the distinction between their states of minds. Maggie is often dressed in red or dark pink to oppose Cam’s blue garb and low mood, or his neutrality as represented by his lime green something-of-a-costume. Forbes’ use of the colours red and blue is also a sincere method of visualising the issue of manic depression or “whatever they call it these days” that is prevalent throughout the film.
The key themes of the film, such as family structure, mental illness and poverty, contribute to the sincerity and emotiveness of the film. Cam’s struggle with depression permeates his household, his two daughters filling the void that Cam leaves. Even at a very young age, Cam’s daughters assume the role of responsible figurehead within the eccentric set-up of a family living in the “shithole” they call home.
The portrayal of mental illness however is what makes the film most honest. Cam’s mental illness is often seen as a “hush hush” issue particularly at the beginning of the film and reflects the unaccepting society of the time, and sadly the attitudes that continue today. His daughter Amelia’s visit to the “halfway house” draws in a thoughtful discursive note from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Amelia notes the similarity of the situation to Lucy’s visits with Mr Tumnus—something that is secretive and perilous within the novel. This element of secrecy illustrates the practical reality of dealing with a mental illness, as something to remain silent about, and is an inescapable truth.
The ending however adds a nice touch—Cam’s mental illness is no longer seen as a burden by his daughters, but something of a unique quality that makes the love between them more concrete. Here it becomes more coherent that Ruffalo’s performance is a key-contributing factor of the film’s success as a feel good memento. Cam Stuart becomes the C.S. of C.S. Lewis, and while his issue of having “polar bear” still exists, the stigma of mental illness is loosened for the viewer.