First-time writer-director Paul Dalio deserves credit for the fact that “Touched With Fire,” about two manic depressives who fall in love during a stay in a mental facility, largely avoids the movie-of-the-week quality that might have been expected in a film on such a subject. The sensitivity and credibility are obviously rooted in Dalio’s own struggles with bipolar disorder, which inform his work and enhance its aura of authenticity even as its approach might engender controversy in some circles.
Marco (Luke Kirby) is introduced in an obviously manic state as he seeks a creative spark for the rap he recites at open-mic events and his street art and goes defiantly off his meds in the belief that they stifle his inspiration. His father (Griffin Dunne) looks upon his disheveled apartment and impractical behavior as a sign that intervention is needed. Meanwhile Carla (Katie Holmes), who’s just published her first volume of poetry, is concerned that her medication is dampening her muse, and is likewise inclined to forego it, much to the distress of her worried parents (Christine Lahti and Bruce Altman).
The two thus find themselves together in a facility where they bond and spend long sleepless nights staring at the stars and imagining that space is their true home. Marco, emboldened by a misunderstanding of a book about the relationship between mental disorder and creativity, comes to believe that his mania, as the key to the genius of artists of the past, shouldn’t be suppressed but embraced, and persuades Carla of that as well.
After their departure from treatment, the two manage to find one another again despite the misgivings of their doctor. But the adventures they heedlessly rush into while off their meds become increasingly dangerous, and soon they’re on the run; even Carla’s pregnancy, which encourages them to accept the stunted emotional stat that medication can cause, especially during the period during which proper dosage has to be determined by trial and error, won’t end their ambivalence about following doctor’s orders.
To convince them once and for all, Dalio introduces an awkward scene in which the couple meet Kay Redfield Jamison, the author of the book on which Marco based his idea about mania and creativity (and which gives the film its title). By explaining how her inspiration has come to coexist with a regular regimen of lithium, she persuades them that eschewing their meds is not the way to go. A postscript reveals what impact that decision has on their relationship.
The ultimate lesson Dalio offers is clear: medication may entail some compromises in their lifestyles, but it’s nonetheless the route that manic depressives should choose. And though he vividly portrays the exuberance of Carla and Marco’s manic episodes together, he doesn’t romanticize them, and neither do Holmes and Kirby, who manage to make the couple sympathetic while also showing how easily they can go radically off the rails. Nor does he portray the two as free spirits brought down to earth by unyielding parents: Dunne, Lahti and Altman bring shading to their characters, who might have become one-note, hectoring stereotypes. Nevertheless it’s undeniable that Marco and Carla seem happier when they’re giving in to their manic impulses, so that whatever the intent, the film’s message in inevitably a mite mixed.
But whatever misgivings one might harbor about “Touched With Fire,” the film—marked by solid technical credits (cinematography by Alexander Stanishev and Kristina Nikolova and production design by Kay Lee, with editing by Dalio, who also composed the effective score)—provides a thoughtful take on a provocative subject.
The title under which the film was shown on the festival circuit, incidentally, was “Mania Days.”