Grown-ups may wince, but Paul Dalio’s earnest, ambitious manic-poet romance Touched With Fire is a gift to the young and passionately creative, to the brains-a-poppin’ kids caught up in invention and each other and the invention of each other. You don’t have to be bipolar to get caught up yourself in the shared mania of Dalio’s institutionalized characters. Here are a writer (Katie Holmes) and a rhymer (Luke Kirby) torn from a world in which neither felt at home and now locked up in a mental hospital against their will. They spar at first, as screenplays demand, but then they spark, and like lit matchsticks pressed together their conjoined minds blaze into something new and whole and wild.
You may not have built, with plastic chairs and Play-Doh, a transmitter/rocket ship, as these two do in the hospital basement, but here’s hoping you’ve enjoyed at least some controlled version of this unifying conflagration. With high spirits and great tenderness, Dalio and his actors stir up what might be the greatest of youthful feelings: that as you get to know someone new, someone whose thinking rhymes with yours, you’re also becoming ever more yourself. The actors jabber, smile, finish each other’s sentences about the pyramids and how van Gogh was manic, too. They stay up many nights in a row, spike the drink of the orderly tasked with separating them, and then convince themselves they’re about to unlock the universe’s secrets, which I fear have something to do with aluminum foil.
Writer/director/co-editor Dalio also wrote the score, which chimes and tinkles insistently, sometimes even intruding on the film’s reality: Early on, it plays in Kirby’s character’s junk-shop of an apartment; later, it’s the jingle of a cellphone. In the early scenes of mania, as Dalio cants his camera and projects Starry Night over the room in which Kirby and Holmes rave, the music seems both to emanate from these characters and to be the element in which they are suspended. It’s as if the fruit chunks in a Jell-O salad could excrete the Jell-O itself. You might feel you’re in it yourself if you can go along with the film and forgive its iffy poetry and undergrad sensibilities. (To the latter: The van Gogh talk gets thick, and in the hospital Holmes’s character, the Berkeley-educated author of a respected book of verse, gives herself the name “Emily Lowell.”)
No mind, relationship, or film can sustain that high, of course. Dalio studied at NYU with Spike Lee, who serves as producer, and he’s picked up his professor’s expressionist vigor — and his willingness to double-stuff a movie. The camerawork becomes bolder as the characters egg each other on, but it doesn’t let up when they crash into depression later, or when they hole up in a secret garden in Brooklyn or light out on a cross-country road trip. Their funk is shot in an arresting underwater blue, with elusive imagery of floating hair intercut with life’s drudgery; their escapes, meanwhile, are lush to the point of luridness, and as the lovers cavort beneath a waterfall the film loses some clarity — you may get lost wondering whether any of this is meant literally to have happened.
Dalio is a maximalist, and many of these later scenes are good even if they’re sometimes incredible in all senses of the word. There’s high drama about parents and doctors trying to keep the lovers apart, about the anger and possibility of their child-rearing, about whether bipolar disorder is illness or gift. Dalio even wrangles expert testimony on that last subject, enlisting the psychologist and author Kay Redfield Jamison — she wrote the study on bipolar disorder and creativity that gives the film its title — to meet the leads for lunch and advise them that, yes, seriously, they should stay on their meds.
Not all of this works. A late confrontation between Kirby’s Marco, Holmes’s Carla, and their parents is laboriously theatrical, and the sequence of them painting their new loft in rapturous Starry Night swirls suggests that, instead of being misunderstood geniuses, maybe this duo should be decorating Montessori schools.
But Dalio shoots the confrontations in scrappy long takes, letting his cast interrupt and talk over one another. His trust is rewarded: Holmes frumps and fevers triumphantly but also with smart reserve: Carla’s face suggests what roils behind it, but she knows what to hold back from the rest of the world. Kirby has the showier role, but it’s less rich — Marco is the charismatic true believer, the prickly advocate for letting their minds romp unleashed from pharmaceuticals. It stings when Marco keeps at that even after Carla grows up — and it stinks when, in the late going, he sinks into brief villainy. But Kirby acts this from the inside out, with no hint of imitation, and he aces the difficult task of making a disordered mind legible to us.
I admit to slumping in my seat during the last couple of scenes, especially when Dalio goes all-in on that Rent promise that, for the young, living itself yields art. But the film is courageous and accomplished, beautifully acted and moving for long, fitful passages. It may be loved beyond measure if it’s discovered by sad-beautiful teens, an audience with so much life ahead that it needn’t be put off by impassioned overreach.
Touched With Fire
Written and directed by Paul Dalio
Opens February 12, Landmark Sunshine