Slices of director Maya Forbes’ life growing up with a mentally ill father. Thankfully, Forbes does without with the typical “Act II breakdown” you see in most other films with mentally ill character. And it dispenses with the idea that mental illness is something delightfully quirky up until the point where everything collapses beyond repair. In POLAR BEAR, Mark Ruffalo’s bipolar disorder is pervasive, with good moments and bad moments, often occurring in the course of a single day. By the end of the film we get, as we sometimes do in life if we’re lucky, a brief respite from those ups and downs even as we know the next set will inevitably come.
We also get to see how privilege can mitigate some of the worst social and economical circumstances. The Blue blood background of Ruffalo’s character absolutely is NOT his family’s salvation from its problems, something that we might see in a different film. It’s not particularly the cause of his problems either, even if it exacerbates them in a couple of instances. But it is shown (uncritically, which I think is okay since it’s not really the point of this movie) as the safety net that it is.
I’m used to films and TV shows where mixed race families always seem to be fixed in a certain specifically defined socioeconomic status (usually one extreme or the other), and dealing with (or not) a certain set of racial issues – that is to say, families of caricatures. Here, we see a mixed race family in the ’70s presented in a very complex way, i.e. like real people. Forbes gives us the sense that if this particular White trust fund kid marrying Zoe Zaldana was ever an issue to the elderly Blue blood matriarch holding the purse strings, it’d been resolved enough that it needn’t have been brought up in this particular story. Which, even in the pre-Post-Racial 1970s, was something not entirely unheard of. Okay granted, maybe in the same way it was “not unheard of” for campers to encounter something big and hairy in the woods in the ’70s but still. I like the fact that Forbes doesn’t lazily caricature Blue bloods, either.
What DOES matter to the Blue blood matriarch is Zaldana’s plan to advance herself to become a better breadwinner by temporarily abandoning her family to go to Columbia. Forbes never glosses over the fact that we’re talking about a Black woman here, but she does focus more on the problems of the traditional gender role. And while you might not like that choice – much like you can theoretically take filmmaker Anthony Chen to task for not being all that critical of the treatment of Overseas Filipino Workers in his 2013 work ILO ILO – you can only fault this filmmaker to the extent that you don’t buy that she’s painted an accurate picture of her life, more or less as she lived it.