A subject that seems to have at least a movie a year regarding it, but still has a lot of ignorance and misinformation, is the bi-polar disorder. This is an odd fact as I feel this is something that touches everyone’s lives whether they know it or not. The good thing is, with some wide spread films like Silver Linings Playbook and the word of mouth of some smaller indies like last year’s Infinitely Polar Bear, this common affliction has more and more light shed on it everyday. The best of these films usually stem from the filmmaker or writer having lived with this form of manic depression and when this isn’t the case it can sometimes come off a bit exploitative.
In first time writer and director Paul Dalio’s new film Touched With Fire, he delved into his own experiences with depression that he had conquered five years earlier to tell a story of the disorder’s effect on the artistic mind, a common thread that dates back to English poet Lord Byron or possibly even further. How many times has this imbalance helped create some of the greatest art and poetry we’ve ever seen? Without the darkness and sometimes final tragedy of these artists, would we even have the works of someone like Sylvia Plath? Unfortunately, probably not.
Touched With Fire follows two of these artists struggling with extreme cases of manic depression. Carla (Katie Holmes) is a published poet who checks herself into an institution, on the recommendation of her mother (Christine Lahti). Already having been institutionalized in the past, with the continuing thread of staring directly into the sun being a main driving force of her illness. Seeing her daughter on the verge of another manic breakdown, Sara hopes to deal with it before it ruins Carla again.
Te other half of our duo is Marco (Luke Kirby), who prefers to be referred to as Luna, given his deep obsession for the moon. Luna channels his depression into more of a slam poetry or rap style, very volatile in his delivery. Under the constant worry of his father George (Griffin Dunne), he eventually gets himself in trouble with the law, due to a trespassing arrest, and is forced into the same institution as Carla. Being a standoffish outsider at first, the two butt heads immediately before Luna quickly opens up to the rest of the group.
Once a connection through poetry is formed between Carla and Luna, the euphoria of finding a like minded person to experience the life that no one else seems to understand becomes overwhelming for both of them, pushing them in the opposite direction of their usual depression. The extreme heights of their happiness proves to be problematic as the two seem to facilitate their more unstable qualities as they both give each other false affirmations of their more outlandish behaviour. The family is then forced to step in and separate them, causing a crash of equal value.
The biggest standout in this film is the performances from our two leads in Holmes and Kirby, that seems to challenge any work they’ve done in the past. For Holmes, I immediately thought of the 2003 film Pieces of April, where she played a pretty destructive woman trying to hold it together for the Thanksgiving holiday. Where that film only plays out over a single day, Touched With Fire shows her character go through so many different stages of emotional well being and she really seems to command it.
Luke Kirby, an actor I’m not totally familiar with, also seems to run deep with character nuances as well, almost reminiscent of some of Mark Ruffalo’s best qualities in the aforementioned Infinitely Polar Bear. Again, another character that goes through these emotional changes alongside Carla, Luna is a person infused with both a methodical and truthful brilliance and a manic insanity that counterbalances all of that, questioning the credibility of anything coherent. Without the drive of these two performances I feel that Dalio’s complete story would have fallen incredibly flat.
As far as the whole arc of the narrative goes in Touched With Fire, there are many things within the narrative that make this film a little bumbling. The introduction of the other patients within the hospital comes off very One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, which has to be very hard to avoid being, in my mind, the quintessential asylum film. From there, once Luna starts to alienate everyone in the group, his immediate acceptance and blending with the group came off very contrived, as does the more romantic aspect between him and Carla later in the film. Though, I have to say there is an issue with Luna dealing with their relationship that I though was incredible truthful and something that isn’t address in many of these types of films.
I feel that this first feature from Paul Dalio has a certain self indulgence and catharsis to it, especially when you have to look back on your own semi recent dealings with this wide spread subject matter. If anything, Touched With Fire will make you take a deeper look at the minds behind such works as “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”or “The Age Demand”. Unfortunately some of the thematic elements are a bit clunky and the overlying metaphor is brutally obvious but Dalio is able to deliver his deeper message well. I give this one a three out of five.