Infinitely Polar Bear articulates an encouraging message about the ability of neurodivergent individuals to be successful parents, a goal they can achieve through love and support from their partners and from their children.
By Nils Skudra
This week I had the opportunity to watch Maya Forbes’ 2014 production Infinitely Polar Bear, a heartwarming and often hilarious autobiographical film about Cam Stuart (Mark Ruffalo), a father diagnosed with bipolar disorder who assumes the responsibility of caring for his two daughters when his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) goes to business school in the hope of building a better life for them. I felt that this film provided an insightful look into the life of a family with a neurodivergent parent and the challenges that parenthood can bring for them, particularly considering the erratic tendencies that Cam displays as a bipolar individual.
The opening sequence begins with a narration by Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky), Cam and Maggie’s eldest daughter, who discusses the events leading to her father’s diagnosis with bipolar disorder and subsequent psychotic breakdown, which resulted in his job loss and hospitalization. He is given lithium medication to control his symptoms, but when he neglects to take his medication, these symptoms resurface in the form of manic episodes. For example, early in the film he is shown running half-naked and shouting hyperactively as Maggie prepares to leave their country home with their daughters, jumping in front of the car and disassembling the carburetor. This proves to be overwhelming for Maggie, and she moves with the children into a small rent-controlled apartment in Boston, where she struggles to find gainful employment.
Although Cam’s erratic behavior is a source of distress for the family, his daughters Amelia and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) miss him greatly, and Amelia goes to visit him at the halfway house where he is recuperating. She emphasizes how their mother is struggling financially and how much they want him back, to which Cam replies that he will move out of the halfway house, find an apartment, and get a job so that he can get back on a stable footing and rejoin his family. He follows through with this promise and moves into an apartment but has difficulty finding a job. Maggie visits him, stating that she has received a scholarship to Columbia University for business school, and asks Cam to take care of their children while she is away for 18 months. Cam is initially resistant to this prospect since he feels that he cannot handle the routine and structure required of parenthood due to his bipolar symptoms, but he grudgingly agrees.
Cam’s reluctance to raise his children on account of his condition is highly illustrative of the concerns that many people have about parents with bipolar disorder. These concerns include fear for children’s safety since bipolar individuals are prone to unpredictable mood swings and manic behaviors, as well as the belief that they cannot successfully manage the routines involved in raising a child. Indeed, after Cam moves in with his daughters following Maggie’s departure, his behavior seems to confirm these assumptions since he occasionally abandons them in the middle of the night to go drinking at a bar, at one point arguing with Amelia about having the chain on the apartment door since she and her sister were left alone. In addition, the girls are embarrassed by Cam’s erratic and unstructured tendencies, including his aggressive attempts at befriending the neighbors and leaving the apartment in a disorganized and messy state. Consequently, when he drives his daughters to school and asks them if they want him to pick them up afterward, they both shout “No!” as they hurriedly run up the stairs.
Despite their embarrassment, Amelia and Faith still love their father deeply and try to help Cam in raising them. This includes assisting him in unpacking boxes and sorting them out so that the apartment is neatly organized, which impresses Maggie when she comes home to visit. To ensure a better education for his daughters, Cam takes them to visit his affluent grandmother who controls the family trust and pays for their living costs. She is judgmental of Maggie’s decision to pursue a career while leaving the children in Cam’s care, and although she offers to give Cam her Bentley car, she refuses to pay for a private school. Cam therefore refuses to take the Bentley, which the girls take chagrin toward since they feel that Cam could have either kept it as something for their neighbors to envy or sold it to bring in some much-needed income.
As Cam continues to struggle with raising his daughters, he becomes overwhelmed and begins to neglect his lithium medication, prompting him to have a series of belligerent mood swings. He has a volatile argument with Amelia and Faith, complaining that he takes care of their every need and is being treated like a maid, and storms out of the apartment with intent of leaving until he sees them standing in the hallway, staring at him with pleading eyes. On another occasion, he works on a Flamenco dress for Faith, grumbling and throwing the garment out the window in his agitation, after which he goes outside to retrieve it from a tree. This is one of the most hilarious moments of the film, but it poignantly demonstrates the erratic nature of bipolar disorder since its accompanying mood swings can prompt individuals to commit unpredictable deeds.
As Maggie approaches graduation, she begins seeking employment with various corporate businesses, receiving an offer from E.F. Hutton & Co. in New York City, but she hopes to find a job in Boston so that she can be with her family. However, she encounters significant obstacles since prospective employers in Boston are not interested in hiring a mother with two children, prompting her to accept the job offer in New York. Upon learning that Cam has not been taking his lithium medication, she has an argument with him, pointing out that as a white person from an affluent background, people find him eccentric for living in impoverished conditions, while “no one’s charmed if you’re a black person living in squalor.” He replies that no one is charmed by his tendencies, either, and expresses a sense of self-loathing for his unstructured and erratic nature, to which Maggie reassures him that he needs to assume responsibility for managing his symptoms. She then tells Cam that she will take the children with her to New York, to which Cam strongly objects, but his attempts to help her with finding a job in Boston only lead to another volatile mood swing which is both hilarious and disturbing.
As she prepares to leave for her new job in New York, Maggie begins to realize how much her daughters have grown to appreciate their father, saying that Faith told her, “He’s always there for us.” In addition, she recognizes how unhappy they will be living in New York since she will be working a full-time position, coming home at 8:00 pm after leaving them alone in an apartment all day. Although the thought of leaving her children is deeply painful for her, Maggie decides to have them stay with Cam while she will send money back to support them so that the girls can attend a good private school. A year later, this goal has been accomplished, and Cam learns to give his daughters some space while continuing to raise them. After insisting that he allow them to have sleepovers at their friends’ home, the girls walk back to school and give him one last glance, showing their love and appreciation for him.
Infinitely Polar Bear features stellar performances by Ruffalo, who brilliantly captures Cam’s erratic personality with great warmth and humor, and Saldana, who brings a strong determination and resolution to the role of Maggie. Wolodarsky and Aufderheide portray the daughters with a heartwarming sensitivity and charm, and in the Q&A panel on the special features, Wolodarsky talks about how she, as the director’s daughter, felt a particularly strong burden in playing Amelia.
Furthermore, since Maya Forbes grew up with a bipolar father while her mother attended Columbia Business School, the film conveys a remarkable authenticity and empathy in capturing the challenges of parenthood, both for individuals with bipolar disorder and for their children. While these can be extremely overwhelming, Infinitely Polar Bear articulates an encouraging message about the ability of neurodivergent individuals to be successful parents, a goal they can achieve through love and support from their partners and from their children.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I recently completed a secondary Master’s in Library and Information Sciences. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.