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To an increasing extent, people diagnosed with a variety of chronic illnesses are doubting whether better living can be achieved through chemistry. For the mentally ill, though, this pursuit of non-pharmaceutical happiness is especially relevant, with a long and often famous lineage of nay-to-drugs-sayers.
Writer-director (and -editor-scorer) Paul Dalio’s first feature, Touched With Fire, posits that mania need not be medicated. (Regard that white-labcoat, group-therapy-pushing drug culture as The Man, wanting to keep brilliant creatives down.) At least, that is, until it does. (See how much better emotional and physical torpor feels?) And then back and forth again.
This wobbly message is related via love story. First we meet Carla (Katie Holmes), a pallid poet who somehow manages to pack a bookstore reading yet faces deafening, watch-checking silence when she’s done. A visit to her mother (Christine Lahti) at 1 a.m. to ask what she was like before she was diagnosed as bipolar—specifically, what triggered “it”—then leads Carla to the hospital where she was once treated. She wants her file; she ends up checking herself in. (The ethics of this are suspect, as she was essentially tricked by her doctor.)
Carla is all about the sun and being fueled by its fire. Meanwhile, there’s Marco (Luke Kirby), whose “poet’s name” is Luna because he believes he’s from the moon. Marco is bipolar, too, and ends up in the same facility as Carla after his concerned father (Griffin Dunne) visits his hoarder-like apartment and Marco bolts, getting so high—literally, sitting on the roof of a building, as well as in the smoked-up sense—that he thinks a police flashlight in his face is a harvest moon bringing him home.
Gee, think they’re headed for a solar eclipse? The symbolism is so heavy-handed in Touched With Fire (named after Kay Redfield Jamison’s book about manic depression and creativity) that it’s an admirable sign of restraint that this expression-as-metaphor is never uttered. Dalio, who is bipolar himself, otherwise pours on easy platitudes, with sun/moon imagery and associated descriptors littering both the screen and Carla and Luna’s scribblings.
The dominant mirror, however, is Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night:” blue swirls for him, yellow swirls for her! Admittedly, a few of the film’s more inspired scenes borrow the painting’s palette and swoons; Carla and Marco begin meeting in the hospital’s art room at 3 a.m., first coloring and talking about art as they explore their new crush and then writing furiously and trying to escape their bodies as they zoom into mania.
Dalio scores these scenes with The Nutcracker and other pixie-dust-ish music that suggests unmitigated mental imbalance is a thing of beauty. A long end-credits dedication to a list of the great artists Jamison studies in her book seems a final stamp of approval: Dalio and his film are in favor of letting one’s emotions run free, with the word “illness” conspicuously absent from the vocabularies of the ill.
But what about the subplot of Carla and Marco wanting to start a family, with one choosing medication and the other cringing at the thought?
Well, it’s tiresome to sort out. What’s more obvious is that Dalio, despite good intentions, does not offer the sort of lyrical artistry referred to here. The script fails, as does Kirby’s too-jittery, too-out-there performance: Bearing striking resemblance to Mark Ruffalo in last year’s similarly themed Infinitely Polar Bear, the actor chews the starry scenery to irritating effect.
Holmes, in comparison, does a beautiful job of illustrating the very highs, very lows, and (arguable) just-rights of bipolar disorder, genuinely coming across as sick instead of just arrogant and hyper; an attempted suicide is particularly difficult to watch. Her performance isn’t quite of the Girl, Interrupted caliber, but it’s good enough to keep Touched With Fire from going down in flames.
Touched With Fire opens Friday at Landmark Bethesda Row and the Angelika Film Center.