Few people can claim to understand bipolar disorder, and director Paul Dalio happens to be one of them. His new film stars Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby as Carla and Marco, two manic-depressive writers who meet at a psychiatric hospital and find common ground in their poetry. A reflection of Dalio’s own struggle with the illness, the film delves into the subject headlong, deconstructing a disease that is no doubt obscure to most people.
Originally entitled Mania Days, “Touched With Fire” is not quite the moving drama I’d hoped for, but it’s certainly a respectable one. Dalio handily sets up for a powerful emotional blow, but he pulls his punches well before maximum impact. It’s a decent flick with characters who are thinly etched out to exemplify an infinitely complex and horrible condition. The film perpetually feels like it’s on the brink of something profound, but eventually becomes more frustrating than enlightening (unlike last year’s “Infinitely Polar Bear”, a must-see performance by Mark Ruffalo). Dalio’s ostensible purge often feels surprisingly manufactured for something coming from such an honest and personal place, and the idea that the actors are “acting” is hard to shake.
Revolving around Carla and Marco’s relationship in and out of the treatment ward, “Touched With Fire” (also written by Dalio) is more like watching a rollercoaster ride than being on one. We’re introduced to Marco rambling on to his father about “going off the grid” and ridding himself of all financial responsibilities. He thinks he can live off of free condiments at fast food restaurants (at least until the apocalypse). Carla inadvertently gets herself committed when impulsively showing up to get copies of her medical records in the middle of the night.
In the treatment center, Carla and Marco’s attraction is not instantaneous. She favors Dickinson, he’s partial to the stylings of Eminem. But it evolves into something romantic after a synchronous manic episode puts them on the same astral plane, where they connect on a level well beyond the comprehension of their loved ones. Is it true love, or just the mania bringing them together? Maybe both. Marco dissects their imbalance obsessively, arguing that it has resulted in some of the world’s most precious works of art (Picasso and Van Gogh are thought to have been bipolar). His idea that bipolar disorder can be a gift lends an interesting perspective to the film. Carla’s parents (Christine Lahti, Bruce Altman) and Marco’s father (Griffin Dunne) object to the relationship, concerned that the two will draw the worst out of one another (or rather, their disease). The couple argue that only a manic-depressive can understand another manic-depressive. They’ll take their medication and everything will work out.
Dalio’s movie is a well-informed observation of mental illness without question, but his experience doesn’t rub off on the characters so much as ambush us with the emotional turmoil they are stricken with. I suppose the director couldn’t possibly convey what it’s like to have zero emotional efficacy in 110 minutes without sometimes resorting to extreme manic stereotypes. But his intimate knowledge is more evident in the film’s nuanced moments; scenes that find Carla and Marco at a crossroads, the parents visibly struggling to relate to their kids. The chemistry, so to speak, is there somewhere–Holmes and Kirby do have a few stirring scenes–but some of the theatrics keep “Touched With Fire” from reaching its full potential.
— M. Parsons
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