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Forbes' Family Struggles Revisited in 'Infinitely Polar Bear'

  • Penelope Poulou

In her new film, "Infinitely Polar Bear," Maya Forbes offers a bittersweet interpretation of her family's struggles with mental illness, poverty and gender bias.

“My father was manic-depressive, my mother is African-American. My father was from a wealthy New England family. We didn’t have any money, but my mother wanted to send us to great schools," she recalled.

Forbes’ mother got a graduate scholarship from Columbia University to study business, but four decades ago, black women were not likely to be hired for management positions.

Because she could not find a job in Boston, she took a position in New York City while the rest of the family stayed in Boston. Forbes' bipolar father took care of Maya and her sister during the week. Her mother visited during the weekends.

“We were an unconventional family,” Forbes admitted, “but we cared for one another.”

Her film’s title, "Infinitely Polar Bear," is taken from a phrase her younger sister used to describe their father's bipolar disorder. Forbes cast Mark Ruffalo to play the character based on her dad, and her eldest daughter portrays Amelia, the director as a young girl. The on-screen names have been changed from Forbes to Stuart.

Ruffalo impresses

Ruffalo offers a tour de force performance as Cameron Stuart, a depressive, penniless aristocrat. His lighthearted approach to his family’s financial hopelessness brings a certain hilarity to the movie.

Zoe Saldana interprets Maggie Stuart, who wears the pants in the family — to the dismay of her highbrow in-laws, who, broke themselves, had to respect Maggie’s decisions.

The film also shows the family's neighbors seeing Cameron as an oddity for having so willingly relinquished the role of the family breadwinner to become a stay-at-home dad. It was after all, the '70s, when men simply did not do that.

“My sister and I were very embarrassed of our situation,” Forbes said. “We were ashamed of my father. Our apartment was a disaster, a mess. My father was embarrassing and also a mess, and at some point he said to us, ‘You don’t have to hide. You can tell people that I’m manic-depressive. That's who I am.' "

That message encouraged Forbes to develop freedom of self-expression. She said she and her sister became resilient, as their on-screen characters do. “It was not ideal,” she said,” but love is not ideal.“ She said her family situation made her more compassionate.

Forbes said mental illness still afflicts a large part of society today, and that many people have reacted positively to her film because they can relate.

“People are coming to share their story with me," she marveled. "Most people are affected by mental illness with somebody they love, either a parent or a child or a sibling, and it’s a family issue. When someone in your family is struggling with mental illness, it affects everybody."

Gender, racial bias

Her film also deals with gender and racial discrimination. Her mother, an educated African-American, could not get a high-paying job in Boston because she was a woman and she was black.

“There are not a lot of black women in finance even today. ... Everyone feels that we solved the problem because [Barack] Obama is our president. We’re postracial. I don’t think that’s true," she said. "As we now see across the country, that is not true.”

Forbes said that she, like other female filmmakers, has experienced gender discrimination in Hollywood. “I don’t know why there are not many women directors. They are not handed the big movies that make money,” she said.

Forbes said it was not easy making a film while raising a family, but her personal experiences have made her independent and strong.

Her story, "Infinitely Polar Bear," is not a typical Hollywood formula of adversity and triumph, but a heartwarming, introspective tale about an unconventional family coping with whatever comes its way.