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Old conventional wisdom about genius and madness resurfaces in Mania Days, a drama that identifies so closely with its two bipolar protagonists that many viewers will feel it promotes even their most flawed beliefs. Writer-director Paul Dalio ultimately arrives at a more nuanced view in this polished but problematic debut, whose leads Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby invite strong viewer identification. But a warm reception from the mental health community is not guaranteed, and the number of viewers who appreciate the picture’s understanding of their experience may be matched by the number who feel it hurts their cause.
The actors play aspiring poets Carla and Marco, who meet while institutionalized (she’s published; his outlets are street art and open-mic rap). Both are entering manic phases, and in long insomniac bouts of wee-hours bonding they egg each other on, constructing a fantasy that they are interstellar entities not meant for life on Earth.
Having discovered a book about artists and illness, Marco decides that he is not sick but gifted. (His poetry is actually awful, something the film never addresses.) He convinces Carla their creativity will bloom without meds, an attitude that leads to big problems after the two reunite weeks after both are released from the hospital.
Marco is motivated by more than the usual lament of bipolar patients: that medication leaves them emotionally numbed, especially in the trial-and-error phase of setting dosage levels. Instead, he argues — using everything from anecdotes about Van Gogh and the Romantic poets to brainscan evidence — that mania is something to be sought out and encouraged.
Dalio offers the opposite perspective, but the deck is stacked: Restraint and patience are preached by parents, doctors, and other elders whose lives look tired and spent (like Marco’s father, played by a haunted Griffin Dunne), while the couple’s unmedicated adventure, taking place in parks and fountains and untouched rustic hideaways, makes full use of the film’s attractive, colorful cinematography. As in films about drug addiction, it’s hard to convey the lure of bad choices without seeming to encourage them, and Dalio hasn’t cracked this problem. It’s not completely clear that he wants to.
He makes an apparently honest try toward the end, contriving a meeting between Marco and Carla and the author of that book he latched on to earlier: Kay Redfield Jamison, the psychologist who wrote Touched With Fire, speaks to them of her own experience of lithium-tempered productivity.
Dalio manages to get through this nonactor cameo without veering into preachiness, and elsewhere raises the dramatic stakes without becoming histrionic. In the face of Marco’s stubbornness, Holmes is freed up to depict a character many of us will recognize: the manic-depressive who reluctantly accepts the need to join society and struggles bravely to endure the compromises that entails. The film embraces ambiguity in the end, with a coda that places Marco and Carla on the same level but not in the same place. The scene’s unsettled but peaceful mood seems an honest reflection of its characters’ lives.
Production company: Moonstruck Productions
Cast: Katie Holmes, Luke Kirby, Christine Lahti, Griffin Dunne, Bruce Altman
Director-screenwriter-composer: Paul Dalio
Producers: Jeremy Alter, Kristina Nikolova, Jason Sokoloff
Executive producer: Spike Lee
Directors of photography: Alexander Stanishev, Kristina Nikolova
Production designer: Kay Lee
Costume designer: Brenda Abbandandolo
Editors: Lee Percy, Paul Dalio
Casting director: Avy Kaufman
No rating, 108 minutes