We’ve all seen situations where two people make each other miserable or happy, who seem perfect or perfectly wrong for each other. But what if that were literally, even clinically the case?

Touched with Fire tells the story of two people with bipolar disorder. Carla (Katie Holmes, who also produces) is the more high functioning; she’s a published poet. Marco (Luke Kirby) has just quit his job and stopped paying bills, certain he can survive on ketchup, milk from Starbucks and marijuana.

They meet in hospital, having been checked in during manic episodes. Unable to sleep, they spend the small hours together and find themselves falling in love. But an administrator separates them, convinced they’re pulling each other into deeper psychological waters. “You’re not healthy for one another,” she says. Still, once released to the care of parents, they find a way to reconnect.

The film has an unusual real-life pedigree; though not “based on a true story,” it takes its title from a book by Kay Redfield Jamison (who also has a cameo as herself) that explores the link between bipolar disorder and creativity. Writer/director Paul Dalio is himself bipolar, so when Marco declares the condition “a gift” while his father calls it “a disease,” one can hear the filmmaker scratching at how to interpret the mental state that both gave us Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night and also drives many sufferers to suicide.

Joey Kuhn
Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby in Touched With Fire.

Such a deeply personal story runs the risk of appealing to no one but its maker, but Touched with Fire tells a sympathetic, relatable tale and embraces the contradictions of its subject matter – and of falling in love. Says Marco’s father: “If you think there’s any romance in being crazy you’re crazy,” but isn’t that exactly how we refer to love?

We sense the anguish felt by the couples’ parents, but at its heart this is their own story. “I want the mania,” Marco tells Carla, but she isn’t so sure she can weather the extremes. Will they live manically ever after, depressively apart, or in some emotional equatorial realm? Dalio keeps us guessing, but the final answer feels real, with all of reality’s imperfections.

Touched with Fire opens Feb. 19 in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax.

Read the National Post review here.