Paul Dalio’s Touched with Fire gets its title and main thesis from a scientific study by Kay Redfield Jamison that links bipolar disorder with creativity. Marco (Luke Kirby) fetishizes the book, name-checking many of the bipolar artists it investigates (Lord Byron, Emily Dickinson, Van Gogh, Tchaikovsky) and insisting that his condition isn’t an illness, but a kind of benediction, a state of enhanced sensitivity and creativity that inspires the poetry he prides himself on, a form of improvised rap. Carla (Katie Holmes) is also a poet, her work more conventional than Marco’s, but every bit as mediocre. She has a very different take on their shared condition, experiencing it as a source of shame and distress until she hooks up with Marco at an in-patient psychiatric hospital, where the two meet late at night in the activities room, bonding over a shared conviction that they are aliens from another planet and a shared obsession with heavenly bodies—the sun for her and the moon for him.
Carla has trouble articulating her feelings, but Holmes eloquently embodies them. A simmering volcano doing her best to avoid erupting, Carla radiates self-conscious unease whether she’s pacing her mother’s kitchen like a feral cat or curling defensively into herself at the hospital. Marco, conversely, is always talking. Hyped up on manic certitude, he keeps ditching his medication, insisting that it just tamps down the fire that fuels his creativity and asking the nurses if they would have medicated Van Gogh, implying that he would never painted masterpieces like Starry Night if they had. For a while, it seems as if the film agrees with him: As Carla drops her diffidence to take on Marco’s buzzy excitement, the lovers really do seem to be charged with extra voltage. But then Carla starts to develop doubts and asks Jamison, playing herself, for advice. The author assures Marco that medication won’t alter his personality or diminish his creative gifts; it will just make him happier and far more productive.
Touched with Fire itself feels a bit manic, unfolding as a series of intense, often unconnected snippets, many separated by weeks or even months, that provide a window into the protagonists’ inner lives while conveying little or no sense of the rhythm and content of their lives. Marco and Carla’s parents, for instance, all appear to be patient, compassionate, and supportive, so it’s puzzling when they act in ways that seem insensitive and deceptive; you may wonder if they’re just doing the best they can in a situation with no good choices or if they were pushed to extremes by things we weren’t shown. In the end, Touched with Fire isn’t so much a story of star-crossed lovers as it is a thinly dramatized series of arguments against, then ultimately—though perhaps a bit reluctantly—in favor of the medication of bipolar disorder.