Author: Nelson Morais
Date: Jan. 8, 2016
Even though I am officially schizophrenic, I saw a lot of myself in the character of Cameron (“Cam”) Stuart in the film, “Infinitely Polar Bear,” which I rented on DVD recently. Stuart is a bipolar man played by Mark Ruffalo who lives in Boston in the late 1970s. The film was written and directed by Maya Forbes. It first appeared in competition at a Sundance Film Festival in January 2014. A division of Sony Pictures released it to the general audience in June 2015. Because of its understandably quirky nature, which would not appeal to a mass audience, I’m sure it bombed at the box-office.
The chain-smoking Cam is married to a woman (the beautiful Maggie, played convincingly by Zoe Saldana), who with two young children love him dearly, and who put up with Cam’s eccentric (to say the least) behavior. When the film begins, Cam has had a nervous breakdown, which leads to his losing his job and being hospitalized. His wife and kids greet Cam as he gets ready to leave the mental health hospital. He has either “the Thorazine shuffle,” or is drugged out and sluggish due to Lithium. He says, unconvincingly, “I feel great!” Maybe better, but certainly not great, by the looks of it.
Maggie moves into a rent-controlled apartment with her children, working at low-paying jobs even though she and Cam are college-educated. She struggles to provide for her and her two girls, played beautifully by the director’s daughter, Imogene Wolodarsky, and Ashley Aufderheide. Meanwhile, Cam’s mind improves temporarily, and he moves from a halfway house to out on his own.
Maggie applies and is accepted into graduate school at Columbia University. That means she must move to New York City, which leaves Cam and the kids back in Boston, with the bipolar, tempermental, and alcohol-drinking Cam to look after them. He switches back and forth from keeping a clean and orderly apartment, to letting cardboard boxes pile up in the home, as well as parts of a bicycle he never gets around to fixing. In fact, there are a lot of items (some would classify as junk) he never fixes or throws out.
The film includes moments and scenes where Cam, who later admits he has not been taking his mental health medicine since he took the responsibility of running the household with his children (with regard to not taking prescribed medicine, “been there, done that” — read my ebook, “From Homeless to Heaven”), gets angry and lashes out at people. At one point, he takes his kids to see a mansion a relative generations previously had lived in. However, the new owner doesn’t know the Stuarts, and is himself unhappy with the fact that Cam has invited himself over and is giving his kids a tour of the house without the new owner’s permission. The two men — Cam and the house owner — argue. I was reminded of the time, when I was homeless and not on medicine, that I lashed out at a woman in Boone, N.C., who I asked for change. She said, “You can’t do that (meaning panhandling was illegal in the city),” but I promptly retorted, “Yes, I can,” and so we went back and forth. I thought I was Jesus Christ, and therefore had the authority to panhandle anywhere I felt like doing it. Our argument escalated, and she left and called the police. An officer came up to me, and I took his suggestion to get on a bus, rather than going to jail, and left.
Another time, I went to an upper class bar, even though I was homeless and hadn’t bathed in a while, and got into an argument with a bartender who charged me the regular price for a draft beer. I thought I had arrived in time to catch the last few minutes of “Happy Hour,” so when he charged me full price, I told another bartender something offensive I won’t repeat here about the man who sold me the beer. That led to the first bartender grabbing my beer out of my hand, and promising to call the police if I didn’t leave immediately. I walked out, but yelled, “Go right ahead — call the police. I don’t care!” I trembled with anger. Once again, I thought that was no way to treat the Savior and Messiah of the universe.
Fortunately for others (VERY fortunately), when I was homeless for six years in the 1990s and not taking mental health medicine on a regular basis as prescribed, I did not have a family of my own that had to put up with me. Even so, however, I did have three sisters and their families, and a cousin, I had been close to, that I did not communicate with during the years I was homeless, primarily in North Carolina and Florida.
Also like Cam, I recall living in rooms or even houses (temporarily), where I let dishes pile up because I thought “God” was telling me to leave them for someone else to wash.
I believe “Infinitely Polar Bear” has only two drawbacks: the title, which does not sum up the movie in any way; and an abrupt ending that cries out for some sort of resolution. Even so, Ruffalo is so good in the movie, and the script so good and believable, I was really drawn in to the story and the major hurdles the Stuarts faced as a family. I highly recommend anyone wanting to better understand a person with mental illness to rent the movie and watch it. It really is that good.
I was happy to find out online that Ruffalo was nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best Actor in a comedy or musical, for his portrayal of the bipolar character in “Infinitely Polar Bear.” Yes, the movie is hilarious and unpredictable at times, though it’s far from being a light-hearted comedy. To me, it was infinitely heartbreaking, as I essentially watched myself and the pain I inflicted on others on the screen.