Sundance: Episode Two

Mental health issues in Infinitely Polar Bear, Frank and The Voices

by Amber Wilkinson

Mark Ruffalo, Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide in Infinitely Polar Bear
Mark Ruffalo, Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide in Infinitely Polar Bear Photo: Claire Folger
Mental health issues have featured in several of the films at Sundance this year. The title of Infinitely Polar Bear is a play on the word bipolar - the illness that its central character Cameron grapples with throughout the runtime. Perhaps surprisingly, this is a romantic comedy, written and directed by Maya Forbes, who based the story on her own experience of living with her manic depressive dad.

Mark Ruffalo plays Cameron, a man from a posh Bostonian family, who is married and madly in love with his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) in the home they share with kids Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide). The film clues us into his illness through a charming home video montage as one of the children matter-of-factly explains her dad's bipolar diagnosis and her mum's decision to love him anyway. Love or no love, however, Cam is sick and an episode at the start of the film shows him petrifying his family before being carted off to hospital. Several months of rehab later and he is living in a halfway house and seeing the kids regularly, but with his wealthy grandmother showing no signs of helping them out financially, Maggie decides its time to improve her skill set. But, with the college in a different city, the only way to make the deal work is to draft Cameron in to look after the kids.

Forbes may not go completely over to the dark side - this is, after all, a relatively mainstream film - but she takes time to show the negative impact that Cameron's illness has on his children, particularly in a key scene when he leaves the children alone at night in order to self-medicate with alcohol. Her film bristles with energy and celebrates the durability and smartness of children without tipping everything into the sugar bowl.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson in Frank
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson in Frank Photo: Lorey Sebastian
Also walking on the funny side of the street - at least for most of its runtime - is Lenny Abrahamson's Frank. The film, adapted Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan and loosely based on Ronson's time as part of a band fronted by papier-mache head sporting Frank Sidebottom (Chris Sievey). Domhnall Gleeson plays Jon. Despite ambitions to become a hit musician, it's clear from early scenes in which all he can do is sing lines about things that are right in front of his nose, that he has no poetry in his soul.

He has a stroke of luck, however, when he bumps into a band on a beach and suddenly finds himself being invited to play keyboards with them - "Can you play C, F, G? You're in". On turning up to the gig, however, he finds these outsider musicians - including permanently angry theramin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and managed by Don (Scoot McNairy) - are a band with a difference, as they are fronted by Frank, an avant garde genius with issues who never removes his papier mache head. The first part of the film is played mostly for laughs as the band attempt to cut a record in Ireland, while Jon uses his 'nest egg' to fund it. There are satiric sideswipes at social media courtesy of Jon's interminable tweeting, which nevertheless sees his follower list grow and grow but the film also has a darker theme running through it concerning creativity and mental health. Despite trailing off a bit in its mid-section, Abrahamson's film is never less than ambitious or interesting and special praise must go to Fassbender for making Frank so memorable and distinctive without the use of his face.

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scoot McNairy after the Frank screening in Sundance.
Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scoot McNairy after the Frank screening in Sundance. Photo: Amber Wilkinson
Speaking after the film at the packed Eccles theatre, Gyllenhaal talked about her approach to the role: "I just erased the fact that Frank was unusual in any way - I just thought that was his face, which makes for a funny way of interacting. But it was also confusing because when I started the movie I thought we were soulmates. Then I got there and thought, 'Huh, it's difficult to relate to this person'. But I think we can all relate to that, in some way, whether you're actually talking to someone with a papier mache head on or it's more a metaphor for something - I've certainly been there."

Addressing the mental health aspect, Abrahamson said: "The idea of the myths that surround creativity or at least the idea that in some very glib way people glamorise a very superficial idea of what mental illness is. they make that art/madness connection which is one of the cliches of our culture. And then they tend to assume that it is some sort of good thing and we wanted to debunk that and say actually the reality is much harsher and more reality. And who knows what the causes of fear can be, certainly there's no simple connection you can draw."

It is fair to say that the mental health issue at the centre of The Voices - schizophrenia - is handled pretty glibly. But as Persepolis director Marjane Satrapi pointed out after the screening: "This is a story not a documentary." Taken as a pure genre piece and, more specifically, as a mash-up between black comedy and horror, there is quite a lot to enjoy here. Ryan Reynolds plays Jerry, a blue-collar packaging worker at a small-town bathroom fixture plant. He's smiley and likeable if socially awkward. Oh, and he talks to his animals. More specifically, his cat Mr Whiskers (Reynolds providing gruff Scottish vocals), swears at him most of the time and urges him to commit murder - "I've killed things on purpose, Jerry, there's no shame in it." - while his dog Bosco (Reynolds in good ol' boy mode) just wants him to be a "good boy".

When a night out with a colleague (Gemma Arterton) takes a bloody turn, he finds himself becoming increasingly unhinged... the only question is can Lisa in Accounts (Anna Kendrick) change things? Satrapi paints things from Jerry's skewed, off-his-meds perspective, only revealing the true state of the place where he lives when he briefly decides to take his tablets. She also keeps the emphasis on the comedy - Mr Whiskers gets all the best lines - cutting away from the gore to let our imaginations do the work.

Ryan Reynolds and Gemma Arterton in The Voices
Ryan Reynolds and Gemma Arterton in The Voices

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