PARK CITY, Utah (AP) - At the beginning of Maya Forbes‘ directorial debut, “Infinitely Polar Bear,” we meet two young sisters who are locked inside a car with their mother as protection from their father during one of his manic episodes.
Based on Forbes‘ own childhood, the film, which she also wrote, follows the struggles of a family coping with the bipolar disorder of the husband and father, Cameron, played with sensitivity by Mark Ruffalo.
It’s a tricky role, because despite his condition and occasional flare-ups, Cameron is not painted as a monster. While he’s on the brink of unraveling much of the time, Cameron can be civil, even tender, and only wants the best for his family.
Based in Massachusetts in the 1970s, both Cameron and Maggie are determined to give their girls a private school education. But they can’t afford it since Cameron is unable to hold a job. So Maggie decides to leave the girls with their father and go to school in New York to earn her MBA in order to provide a better life for their family. Though Cameron is mentally unstable, Maggie believes he can care for the children while she’s away.
Of course, there are the inevitable mishaps: Cameron goes out late and gets drunk, leaving the girls home alone, and he only cleans the apartment on occasion. Still, his love for his daughters remains undeniable.
Forbes, 45, was 10 years old when she and her little sister were left in their father’s care.
“My parents did this very unusual and risky thing,” said Forbes at the Sundance Film Festival where “Infinitely Polar Bear” premiered. “But it worked out. My sister and I both survived and thrived.”
Forbes‘ sister, China, 43, is the lead singer of multi-genre band Pink Martini, “which I attribute to my father singing all of the time,” adds the filmmaker. “He was also a great storyteller. That’s what I do.”
When searching for the right actor to play her father, Forbes knew she needed someone “who not only got the role, but brought warmth and the humanity to it,” she says.
Ruffalo was at the top of her list. But the actor says he actually “chased Maya down” for the role. “I read the script and was really moved,” Ruffalo said in an interview at Sundance. “So I basically begged.”
Tapping into the behavior of Forbes‘ father wasn’t difficult, adds the actor. “I know quite a few bipolar people, so I understand mental illness,” he says. “The stuff that was hard was the stuff in the hospital.” (At one point in the film, Cameron is subdued with drugs after being hauled off to a mental facility.)
Cameron’s chain smoking was another hurdle. Ruffalo had to smoke in just about every scene, a task he says gave him a respiratory infection. “They were herbal cigarettes, but it was a lot to ask of him,” said Forbes.