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Movie Tells Story of Mental Health, Poverty

Director Maya Forbes tells about her family and its struggles with depression, poverty and sex discrimination in her new film, “Infinitely Polar Bear.” The film is not like other Hollywood movies that have a happy ending. Instead “Infinitely Polar Bear” tells about an American family and how it reacted to events -- some of them humorous, and others serious -- back in the 1970s.

VOA’s Penelope Poulou spoke recently with Maya Forbes about how her childhood struggles helped her become a successful film writer, producer and director.

Actor Mark Rufallo as Cameron Stuart: “We can go to the Museum of Fine Arts and look at great-grandpapa’s portrait.”

Actress Imogene Wolodarsky as Cameron Stuart’s daughter Amelia: “Why is his portrait hanging in a museum?”

Mark Rufallo: “Because a very important artist named John Singer Sargent painted it.”

Imogene Wolodarsky: “Why?”

Mark Rufallo: “Why? Don’t you know who we are?”

Actor Mark Rufallo plays Cameron Stuart, a member of a once-powerful family. His ancestors had a lot of money many years ago, but now the family has very little.

Cameron Stuart has a severe mental condition. He suffers from manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder.

This is how his younger daughter describes the disorder:

“Our dad is totally Polar Bear.”

Mr. Stuart’s older daughter, Amelia, corrects her sister:


Maya Forbes used her family’s story as a model for the Stuarts.

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

Cameron Stuart’s mother Pauline reacts to her son’s wife’s decision to get a job in New York City to support the family: “No, no! Maggie Stuart. You cannot leave your family.”

Actress Zoe Saldana as Maggie Stuart: “Pauline, I’m desperate. We have no money.”

Like Maggie, Maya Forbes’ mother left her husband to care for the children. She went to work in New York City, but visited the family every weekend.

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

Ms. Forbes says people like her film because mental illness has affected them in some way.

“People are coming to share their story with me. And most people are affected by mental illness with somebody they love, whether its a parent of a child or a sibling.”

Her film also deals with sexual and racial discrimination. Her mother was well-educated. But Ms. Forbes says she could not get a high-paying job in Boston because she was a black woman.

“My mother going into the world of finance -- there are not a lot of black women in finance, you know, today. I mean, it's not like we've made huge strides in that arena. And everyone feels that we, we solved the problems because Obama is our president. We’re post-racial. That is not true.”

The director also says that she, like other women, has dealt with sex discrimination in Hollywood.

“I don’t know why there aren't more women directors. I just think they aren't handed the big movies, they aren't handed the big movies and those are the movies where you can actually make some money.”

She says it was not easy making a film while raising a family. But she says her childhood helped her to become independent and strong.

I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.

VOA Entertainment Correspondent Penelope Poulou reported this story. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

portrait – n. a painting, drawing or photograph of a person that usually only includes the person’s head and shoulders

manic depression – n. a mental condition in which a person experiences periods of strong excitement and happiness followed by periods of sadness and depression

ashamed – adj. feeling guilty

mess – n. a very dirty state or condition

embarrass(ing) – v. to make someone or something look foolish

sibling – n. a brother or sister

strides – n. a change or improvement that brings someone closer to a goal

arena – n. an area of activity, interest or competition

handed – v. informal – to be given (a chance)

How has your family affected who you are? We want to hear from you. Write your thoughts in the comments section.

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