Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 30 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 2; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction, and my neighbors stand far off.
For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
The apostle Paul is writing about sin in the above passage, but in director/writer Maya Forbes’s film, based on her childhood experience, it is the bi-polar condition of Cameron (Mark Ruffalo) that prevents him from doing the good and right thing. His mood swings are swift and extreme, making it impossible to hold a job. Suffering a mental breakdown, he emerges from treatment in 1978 when long suffering wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) comes up with a plan, one not at all conventional back in the 70s when feminism was struggling against long-held patriarchal views of the roles of men and women. She will move from Boston to New York to enter an 18 month MBA program at Columbia University while Cameron cares for the girls in their cramped rent-control apartment.
Cameron feels overwhelmed at the idea, and their daughters Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky, the filmmaker’s real life daughter) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide), though they adore their father, are afraid that he cannot cope—they have witnessed far too many episodes of his destructive mood swings. Maggie wins out, assuring them that she will return on weekends. Because the only hope for them as a family is for her to secure an above minimum wage job, all become reconciled to her plan.
Of course, there are ups and down in the following weeks, the girls sometimes screaming their defiance at their dad when he tries to get them to do his bidding. Complicating matters is the necessity for them to keep their address secret from the authorities at the posh public school he drives them to each morning. The public housing they live in is located in a poor district where the school is substandard, and Maggie has lied because of her determination to give her girls a better education than she had received as a child.
There is irony in the fact that Cameron is actually a blue blood, apparently regarded as the black sheep when he married the African American Maggie. In one embarrassing scene he tries to take the girls on a tour of the stately home he grew up in, only to be ordered from the premises by the unsympathetic present owner. He does visit an elderly grandmother who has been paying for their rent, but she aparently does not want to become involved in the life of his family. During a rare visit at her estate she offers him one of her fancy cars, but he has to reject the offer, knowing that he cannot maintain it. The girls chastise him, but he tells him that it would not be feasable to sell it. He has managed to trade their old clunker for a ghastly looking car with a better engine, but it has a large hole in the floor that frightens the girls. During his visit at Granny’s he talks the cook into giving him a couple of oven trays to cover the hole.
There are bright moments of hilarity when Cameron is able to charm and relate to the girls, but there are also episodes of meltdown when he cannot cope. Maggie’s weekends vary also from pleasant to impossible, and she is frequently interrupted during the week by Cameron’s phone calls seeking help. The role of the responsible adult shifts back and forth between father, daughters, and on weekends, with Maggie. The girls plead with him not to talk so much because it puts people off, but he cannot control himself, so there are many embarrassing incidents. One of these is when, returning to their building, they see a woman opening the trunk of her car where she has a half dozen bags of groceries. Not only does their father talk her into letting them all help carry up the bags, but also at her apartment door he offers to unpack and put the groceries away. By now fully put off by him, she declines, quickly closing the door. The girls describe this as slamming the door in his face.
At one point there is a reflection on the times, as when a female neighbor tells Cameron that she admires him for staying home and caring for the girls. He is pleased by the first part of her observation, but when she adds, so that the wife can be the breadwinner, he feels a bit deflated. Fortunately she is standing behind him in the apartment’s elevator, so she cannot see his face.
Covering the four seasons, the film seems at times episodic, but it never lags in interest. All four, adults and children, are so excellent in their roles that we tend to overlook some of the implausibility. If there were an Oscar for Best Child Performance Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide would deserve to share it, so skillfully do they navigate all the mood swings and interaction with their co-stars. They are lively, even precocious, but never TV kids-cute. Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana, always enjoyable to watch, are at their finest, with the former, of course, given the most dramatic scenes. No doubt there is some sugar coating of the serious ailment Cameron is afflicted with, but there are many truthful moments when we see just what it means to be “afflicted.” As with Trainwreck, Maya Forbes’s debut film as director is head and shoulders above most summer comedies.
This review with a set of discussion questions is in the August issue of Visual Parables.