“Touched With Fire” is a heartfelt, admirable misfire about two poets with bipolar disorder who fall in love, struggle with their illness and the impact it has on their loved ones, and try to make a life for themselves. This is fascinating, fertile ground for cinema, in particular a love story.
“Fire,” however, is not quite a fascinating film. In fact, its most noteworthy element is that writer and director Paul Dalio has made it at all. A protégé of Spike Lee (who serves as a producer), Dalio overcame his own struggle with bipolar disorder.
He channeled those experiences into the script, and the film that’s resulted seems on the cusp of taking flight on several occasions. That does not happen, but “Touched With Fire” is still an admirable attempt at bringing to the screen a convincing story about those dealing with bipolar disorder.
Luke Kirby stars as Marco, a poet living surrounded by books in a newly power-less apartment. His father (Griffin Dunne) is exasperated, urging his son to return home. But “home” is undoubtedly a loaded word for Marco.
That’s also true for Carla (Katie Holmes), also a poet, also living with bipolar disorder. The two meet in a psychiatric hospital, first in a group setting as Marco seemingly goes out of his way to make some enemies. But the fellow poets soon develop a strong bond, and begin to fall in love. A roving camera floats around them while they busy themselves with various projects, much to the chagrin of the hospital’s doctors.
The relationship is stopped in its tracks but rekindles when both Marco and Carla are released. Now they must face the disapproval of their families, the question of whether to continue their meds, and a new series of issues — working, concerns over having a child, and how to make the sacrifices required for a healthy life together.
One wonders how many of the lines uttered by Marco and Carla came straight from Dalio’s own life, or his time in the hospital: “I’m just trying to figure out who I am, because I do not feel like myself anymore. Even when I go off my medication I don’t feel like myself.” “You’re looking at me like you don’t even recognize me.”
This dialogue holds real weight. Yet while watching the film, I could not stop comparing it to one of 2015’s finest indies, “Heaven Knows What.” The story of a homeless heroin addict had a level of verisimilitude that made it feel truly harrowing.
“Touched With Fire” feels like a movie of the week by comparison. Not every film can aim for the grittiness of “Heaven Knows What,” but it can shoot for the feeling. “Fire” tries, especially in a hospital scene in which Marco and Carla are torn apart from each other. But these moments occur too rarely.
It becomes repetitive and increasingly predictable, losing some of the early spontaneity that made the initial scenes between Marco and Carla somewhat memorable. The film needed an ending that felt transcendent, but instead “Touched With Fire” ends with something of a shrug.
The leads do their best, in particular Katie Holmes. It’s easily her finest performance since 2003’s “Pieces of April.” It’s often easy to forget that prior to becoming tabloid fodder thanks to her marriage to Tom Cruise, the “Dawson’s Creek” star had appeared in films like “The Ice Storm,” “Go” and “Wonder Boys.”
Kirby is much less well-known, but the young Hamilton, Ont., native is always believable, if not particularly charismatic. (Check out Sarah Polley’s “Take This Waltz” to see Kirby’s best on-screen performance.)
Indeed, the acting is uniformly strong — Dunne and Christine Lahti deserve mentioning as Marco’s dad and Carla’s mother — the film itself never feels as absorbing as it should. Dalio shows real promise as a filmmaker in what was clearly a very personal film. His next effort might not be as personal, but I expect it will be much stronger.
“Touched With Fire”
2.5 stars (out of four)
Starring: Katie Holmes, Luke Kirby, Christine Lahti, Griffin Dunne, Bruce Altman. Directed by Paul Dalio. 110 minutes.
Rated: R for language, a disturbing image, brief sexuality and drug use.