Carla Lucia (Katie Holmes) is a manic-depressive poet who struggles to remember what she was like before she got sick. Marco (Luke Kirby) is a guy who’s off his meds and obsessively draws chalk images of the moon across New York City as he babbles about the apocalypse. When the two find themselves checked in to the same mental institution, it isn’t long before the cosmos align and their respective psychoses sync into a total eclipse that blinds them to reality.
But Touched With Fire isn’t a movie about the sadness that stalks mental illness — in fact, it’s the farthest thing from it. Written, directed, edited, scored, and partially lived by bipolar filmmaker Paul Dalio, this intense romantic drama solely exists to prove that his so-called “disorder” isn’t a dehumanizing defect. On the contrary, the director considers his chemical imbalance a gift to be nurtured rather than cured, and his debut feature is unmistakably the work of someone who looks at Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and sees validation for his artistic dreams.
Dalio knows what it’s like to feel the revelatory rush of a manic episode, and his free-floating camera never lets you forget that Carla and Marco are trying to use each other for the balance that their see-sawing brains won’t allow them. And yet, even though Holmes delivers the most vibrant performance of her big-screen career, it’s hard to shake the feeling that she and Kirby are signifying the highs and lows of manic depression rather than expressing them — like they’re acting out their director’s memories in a game of charades. For all of the hard-earned honesty with which Dalio allows the love story to unfold and unravel, his film crucially fails to distinguish the insanity of romance from the romance of insanity. By the time Touched With Fire closes with a list of legendary artists that it (speciously) insists were bipolar, the mental illness starts to seem more like a superpower. Such artists have created many enduring works. This is not one of them.