Somewhere early in Touched with Fire’s third act, it becomes clear there’s not going to be any performance potential from leads Luke Kirby and Katie Holmes. The movie doesn’t really want to be about them. Director (and writer) Dalio skips all the character development, leaving Holmes dulled and Kirby perpetually in between a Zach Braff impression and a Casey Affleck one.
Same goes for “special guest stars”–but in the low budget sense, not the late seventies melodrama one–Bruce Altman, Griffin Dunne, and Christine Lahti. While Dalio’s script shafts them all, it’s unequal. Altman has the smallest part, which is kind of best given Dunne and Lahti don’t get any character development either. They get a lot of dramatic setup for character development; once again, Dalio’s not interested.
In fact, Dalio’s never interested in anything long enough in Touched With Fire for it to stick.
Holmes and Kirby are bipolar young adults who just happen to be in their mid-thirties. They look good for it, but they still clearly are too old to have so few life experiences. They live in New York City, both supported by their parents. Dunne is Kirby’s dad, Lahti and Altman are Holmes’s parents. The film introduces the principals (including Dunne and Lahti), then contrives a way to get Kirby and Holmes together. They’re both committed, Kirby because of criminal behavior, Holmes because the doctor cons her into it.
Maryann Urbano is great as the doctor. It’s also one of the better written roles in Dalio’s script; Urbano’s behavior and actions towards Kirby and Holmes are consistent. No one else is ever consistent. They sway with the changing winds of scene need.
So after not liking one another, Kirby and Holmes soon bond over poetry. Holmes is formerly successful (and published) poet–the timeline on when is unclear–and Kirby is a rap poet. Though Dalio never gets into what he means by rap poetry. It’s associative rhyming. When the film starts, Kirby is popular at his performances, Holmes is not.
Kirby thinks being bipolar informs his creativity, Holmes… well, actually, it’s never clear what Holmes thinks. Because–even though the film shows her writing poetry a lot–her feelings about it are never even acknowledged. Unless it’s one of the scenes where Kirby’s telling her how she doesn’t feel about it. Those scenes are in that ramshackle third act.
Anyway. Kirby and Holmes fall in love (while committed) but circumstances separate them. When they do get back together, determined to embrace the creative benefits of being bipolar, the film turns into a series of montages. It already had a bunch of montages while they were meeting in the middle of the night, but there was at least drama there. They poison an attendant. They battle Urbano. Their respective parents dismiss them. There’s drama.
Not in the later montages. In those montages, as the film has already shown the dangers of their mania, have some drama as they get closer and closer to the disaster, but not really. Because all the self-destructive character traits Kirby exhibited before meeting Holmes? Gone. Does Dalio explore the change? Nope. It doesn’t really matter for Holmes because she’s now entirely defined by her relationship with her parents. Even though Dunne’s always along to disappoint Kirby, the scenes anchor around Lahti and Altman.
There’s also the film itself. It’s entitled Touched with Fire because of a book called Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison. Who appears in the film as herself, for a rather disappointing sequence. But the book is about famous creatives through history who were manic-depressive. Byron, Van Gogh (lots of Starry Night references in the film too), and many others. Kirby sees himself in that lot, mostly in the first and third acts.
Only Touched with Fire, the movie, never explores the characters’ creativity. Holmes doesn’t grow as a poet because of her relationship with Kirby. In fact, he controls her work. Or he doesn’t. It’s unclear. Because Dalio isn’t interested. So it’s a film about being creative without anything to say about actual creativity. Montages of being silly in public don’t cover it.
Both leads are disappointing. More Kirby because he’s got the bigger part. Dalio doesn’t give it anywhere to go. Holmes has somewhere to go–three times–and Dalio stays as far away from her as he can during them. Dunne and Lahti are great. More Dunne because Lahti gets some of the worst inconsistent behavior scenes. Altman’s fine. He’s got absolutely nothing to do except be present and Bruce Altman.
Dalio’s strength as a director in his ability to execute the production on its limited budget. His composition’s never terrible but sometimes predictable and never exciting. It’s boring without being tedious. He doesn’t direct the actors, which is a problem. The leads both need it. His musical score’s damned good though.
Editing and cinematography are both thoroughly competent. Better editing might’ve done wonders.
Touched with Fire has all sorts of interesting places to go and goes none of them. It frequently pretends the opportunities aren’t even there. And there was no reason for it to fall apart in the third act.
Watching Touched with Fire, you keep wanting it to get better or be better or do the right thing. It rarely does. And never when it counts.
Written, edited, and directed by Paul Dalio; directors of photography, Kristina Nikolova Dalio and Alexander Stanishev; music by Dalio; production designer, Kay Lee; produced by Jeremy Alter, Nikolova Dalio, and Jason Sokoloff; released by Roadside Attractions.
Starring Luke Kirby (Marco), Katie Holmes (Carla), Christine Lahti (Sara), Griffin Dunne (George), Maryann Urbano (Dr. Strinsky), Bruce Altman (Donald), Daniel Gerroll (Dr. Lyon), and Kay Redfield Jamison (Kay Jamison).