Movies involving mental illness are a dodgy bet at best, tending either to the bleak or to a fake Hollywood gloss that treats it as a metaphor, and there's nothing in particular in first time writer/director Maya Forbes' previous writing career ("Larry Sanders", Monsters vs. Aliens) suggests an ability to handle such a delicate subject in a way that works.
Miracles and blessings, Infinitely Polar Bear is a fine film, avoiding the bathos of the zanier members of the "nuts" genre (like The Dream Team) and the sheer crushing depression found in the more serious entries (examples of which elude me, as I try to avoid them).
There's something wonderfully banal in Infinitely's set up: Maggie (Zoe Saldana) meets and falls in love with Cameron (Mark Ruffalo), who at the front of their whirlwind romance, mentions his mental problems to her. But of course she has no clue what that really means until ten years later, when they have two kids and no money, and they can't stay in their beautiful country home because Cameron can't hold a job, what with running around half-dressed in the front yard.
After an extended stay in the spin bin for Cameron, and the public school system discovering that the girls don't live in the right district to go to the good school that Maggie has enrolled them in (rather than the awful one the government school system requires), Maggie decides she's going to go to get an MBA so she can provide for the family. But this requires the fragile Cameron to take of the girls.
And there's your plot. It's a rocky road of course—how could it not be?—but there's so much sympathy for all the characters, and neither attempts to minimize the severity of the situation nor a grief porn-y type wallowing in it.
You end up liking everybody and rooting for everybody.
And the movie avoids all the easy paths it could have taken: Maggie could be a superheroine who doesn't have to sacrifice anything, or she could've been completely unsympathetic when contrasted with the "fun" Cameron. (Props to Saldana for her great performance.) Cameron could've been harmless crazy, like a Robin Williams character, but his downs are down and he can be mean, and he's childish in both positive and negative ways. (Props to Ruffalo for his great performance.)
The movie could've made a big deal about the mixed-race marriage—which was a much bigger deal back in the '70s, when the movie takes place—rather than just having a some awkward moments. There's a scene where Maggie doesn't get a job that I think was dead on for the time and place.
It surprises me not at all that it's based on Maya Forbes' life. It felt very real, and underscores perhaps the usual problem for crazy person movies: Insanity is a vehicle for humor or drama, as opposed to a real thing that some folks have to deal with in their lives.
The Boy really liked this one.