“Touched With Fire,” the debut feature from NYU film school graduate Paul Dalio, is a disquietingly personal picture. Opening Friday in South Florida and chronicling the coupling of two bipolar poets (Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby) through a tumultuous year of starry manias and suicidal depressions, the film has an unassailable air of authenticity, because Dalio lived it. He shuttled in and out of psychiatric hospitals for five years battling the same condition, and parts of his own background as an underground slam poet in New York City’s rap scene directly inform Kirby’s troubled character, Marco.
We meet Marco—aka “Luna” in the poetry culture—in his dimly lit apartment, an almost over-the-top rendering of a madman’s self-imposed asylum: books cluttering the carpet with a hoarder’s logic, cryptic lunar symbols scrawled across torn pages of the Village Voice, paint peeling off the walls. When his father (Griffin Dunne) discovers that his son is off his medication, raving about the apocalypse and persisting on McDonald’s ketchup packets, he calls the police.
Within a day, Marco is at psych facility, where he meets Holmes’ Carla, a fellow-poet with a more subdued mien, who has published a book of her work. She made the “mistake” of checking herself in after a manic episode the night before; we soon learn that her problems first manifested when she stared at the sun for so long she nearly blinded herself.
So there they are, Carla and Marco, the sun and the moon, alone but for each other, ditching their meds for periods of orgasmic euphoria, accepting them for excruciating periods of deadened normality, and repeating the cycle. When Dalio films their manic episodes, the world looks as bright and vibrant as a Van Gogh; in their depressive periods, they seem to be treading water at the bottom of a vast ocean, unable to breathe.
Dalio accurately captures the fundamental impossibility of their relationship, their wayward attempts to preserve the unsustainable, and the way they enable each others’ manic desires like drug addicts sharing needles. We root for them because they’re two people who love each other in sickness and in health, but we know their well-intentioned parents are always right, despite their frustrating inability to fathom their children’s realities. Holmes and Kirby, sporting exhausted, washed-out faces seemingly free of makeup, wear their illnesses in every frame like permanent scars.
“Touched by Fire” functions best as a cautionary guidebook for the bipolar mind; after all, it was inspired by psychologist Kay Renfield Jamison’s award-winning nonfiction book of the same name, which explores the relationship between creativity and manic-depression across fields of music, visual art, literature and more. It’s a tougher sell to the public at large, because it’s not an entertaining romp through bipolar romance in the dynamic, caustically funny vein of “The Silver Linings Playbook.” Dalio, perhaps blinkered by his biographical connection to the material, is too close to the condition to find anything remotely amusing in its emotional seesaws, resulting in a bleak and humorless case study whose rhythms and plot points become as predictable as the lunar tides.
There’s certainly a place for grim, well-acted, socially significant film-festival fodder like this. I don’t expect it to wind on many top 10 lists or cherished home-video libraries, but it’ll surely become a fixture in colleges of psychology nationwide.
“Touched With Fire” opens Friday at Regal Shadowood 16 in Boca Raton, AMC Aventura 24, and AMC Sunset Place 24 in South Miami.