I hate Hollywood depictions of mental illness. So when Psychology Today senior editor Hara Marano asked me to serve on a panel with Mark Ruffalo and filmmaker Maya Forbes to screen Infinitely Polar Bear, their new movie about a bipolar father and his family, I was nervous because I didn’t relish being the cranky spoiler.
I needn’t have worried. The film is a masterpiece, one that I would argue deserves a place in the pantheon of the very best films ever made about mental illness—One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Rain Man, A Beautiful Mind. The story rings true because it is true. Maya Forbes wrote and directed this tale of her growing up with her sister in the custody of their bipolar father in Boston, when their mother, with no other good options, leaves for New York to get an MBA and later a career. Maya is played by her own daughter, who does an extraordinary job. “I never knew my grandfather, but I feel I have gotten to know him through acting in this film,” she said. Ruffalo’s performance is genius—complex, engaging, and pitch-perfect in the smallest nuances.
The film grabs us by the throat in the first few seconds, as we see a psychedelic snapshot of Ruffalo looking ecstatic, wearing a weird fake beard, while the daughter narrates: “My father was diagnosed manic depressive. He’d been introducing himself around Cambridge as Jesus John Harvard.” We are immediately intrigued by this character and curious about his relationship with his daughter.
All of the characters are rich, three dimensional, and deeply sympathetic, as Forbes captures the full range of their emotions. We feel the girls’ mortifying embarrassment when their father, Cam, the impoverished black sheep of a wealthy aristocratic family (kicked out of Harvard when he manically registered for 75 courses), takes his daughters on an unauthorized tour of the former family mansion (“It’s Boston; they’re practically expecting us.”). When they’re thrown out by the new owner, Cam casually dismisses the incident saying, “He’s an asshole.” “No you’re the asshole!” his children scream. We see their genuine terror when he stays out all night drinking and busts in the door.
But what rescues this film from being a bipolar Mommie Dearest is the deep empathy the characters and the viewers feel for Cam. When Cam embarrasses his two daughters because he insists on coming out to play with their friends, wearing a ridiculous paisley maroon silk smoking jacket with tennis shorts, they understandably beg him to go away. “I have an illness. It’s not your fault. Don’t not have friends because of me.” They hear him. And he is both touched and overjoyed when they overcome their mortification and invite the gang over to their chaotic apartment. Cam rewards them by making them all cinnamon toast—which one friend eats enthusiastically off Cam’s machete. Cam puts on jazz records, sets up a mock casino with a toy roulette wheel, and takes them to the park where he teaches them self-defense. He is simultaneously both the worst and the best Dad ever.
Fatherhood becomes Cam’s therapy. Ruffalo often feels like a Hulk ready to explode, and you viscerally feel his extraordinary effort to keep it together for the sake of the children. Twice, when he loses control, you see him head for the medicine chest to restart his lithium.
Speaking of medication, when the family visits Cam in the hospital, antipsychotics have rendered him a fat, sedated, shuffling zombie. Fortunately, in his case, the antipsychotics were used appropriately, only when he was in the acute phase of his illness. Unfortunately for most bipolars today, however, a new generation of antipsychotics are used routinely and unnecessarily as a long-term maintenance medication with results similar to those depicted in the film.
Sadly, we have not made progress in our treatment of bipolar disorder—just the opposite. We have ceded treatment to the pharmaceutical industry, whose only interest is in selling more and more expensive drugs (new generation antipsychotics cost $1,000 a month and make billions for Big Pharma). Had Cam been kept on antipsychotics, as is the practice today, he never would have been capable of having custody of his daughters.
This film also felt deeply authentic to me because it paralleled my life in some uncanny ways that I have never spoken about publically before now. My father was also bipolar, and coincidentally had a psychotic break as a Harvard student. Like the mother in the film, my mother left my father when he had another break, and as a result propelled herself into a glass ceiling-shattering career. Like the girls, I spent a portion of my life each week living alone in his care in a chaotic, small, rent-controlled apartment.
I only wish I could have had the compassion that Maya Forbes did. “No, you’re the asshole,” could have been a quote from me arguing with my Dad on any given weekend. But I never had the maturity she and her sister did, to see him as a whole person, until I was older, and he was gone. Writing The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (a Little Craziness) and (a Lot of Success) in America about the productive benefits of bipolar disorder and its role in American history, was my penance, and the book was dedicated to my Dad. Listening to Forbes at the screening tell stories about her Dad, it was poignantly clear how deeply she loved him, and consequently, we the viewers do, too.
In the final scene, Cam earns the reward of all successful fathers: His children leave him to join their peers. As Cam waves tearfully goodbye, he shakes it off, puts on a bright plaid tartan Scottish golfing hat and smiles a sly wild grin. In the arc of the story, he’s passed from the psychotic Jesus John Harvard to an eccentric but dedicated father. The silly hat reminds us that he’s still Cam. Still a little crazy. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.