The expression “madly in love” proves unfortunately apt for the lead characters in “Mania Days,” writer-director Paul Dalio’s sensitively detailed and emotionally compelling drama about the exhilarating highs and harrowing lows experienced by two manic depressives during their ill-fated romance. Potent performances by stars Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby, strong contributions by well-cast supporting players and an overall sense of understated verisimilitude offset the predictable aspects of the narrative, and should enable this handsomely produced indie to curry the critical favor it will need to attract audiences in theatrical and home-screen platforms.
At first glance, Carla (Holmes) and Marco (Kirby) might appear sufficiently well matched to successfully connect after meeting cute. She is a thoughtful young writer who’s trying to follow her muse after publishing her first volume of poetry; he’s an appreciably brasher but equally artistically inclined fellow who uninhibitedly bares his soul while rapping at poetry slams. Unfortunately, both are manic depressives. Even more unfortunately, both avoid taking meds that they fear could stifle their creativity.
They wind up in the same psychiatric hospital (she somewhat more willingly than he), where they gradually lower their guards and share their secrets. Before long, Marco — his exuberance fueled in part by a delusional misreading of Kay Redfield Jamison’s “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament” — convinces Carla to embrace what others might call madness, and use her heightened sensibilities to see clearer, create more and live fuller. Just like he does.
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Their love flourishes, along with their codependency, after they leave the hospital, much to the wary concern of Marco’s father (Griffin Dunne) and the mounting anxiety of Carla’s parents (Christine Lahti, Bruce Altman). The couple behave heedlessly, jazzed by the certainty that they can remain unbound by convention or medication, even after a brush with death and an escape from involuntary commitment. It is only when Carla becomes pregnant that she and Marco grudgingly attempt to immerse themselves in the straight life, with the aid of prescribed pharmaceuticals. Not surprisingly, the story doesn’t end there.
Bits and pieces of “Mania Days” might remind some audiences of “Days of Wine and Roses,” “David and Lisa,” and any of the young-junkies-in-love mellers that constituted an entire subgenre in the 1970s. But in sharp contrast to many other movies dealing with similar subject matter, this vital yet subdued drama never gives the impression of romanticizing mental illness as a special state of grace, and refuses to depict parents, doctors and other concerned bystanders as interfering scolds or, worse, control-freakish villains. Indeed, Lahti, Dunne and Altman are very good in roles carefully crafted by writer-director Dalio to be much more complex than standard-issue stereotypes.
Dalio has publicly discussed past struggles to control his own bipolar disorder — unlike Carla and Marco, he apparently takes his meds — which doubtless will motivate some moviegoers, and critics, to parse “Mania Days” for possibly autobiographical elements. But even if neither Carla nor Marco is the filmmaker’s alter ego, it’s likely safe to assume that the fillmmaker’s real-life experiences enhanced his ability to give his fiction the feel of authenticity. (At the risk of sounding crass, Dalio’s backstory could conceivably be a selling point for the film. So, too, could the billing of Spike Lee, Dalio’s mentor at NYU film school, as the film’s executive producer.)
That authenticity also manifests itself in the work of the film’s two stars. Holmes and Kirby maneuver through the vertiginous mood swings of their characters with a nimble sure-footedness that commands respect and compels empathy. They are achingly credible, both collectively and as a team, and they deftly balance each other: She’s more subdued, even during Carla’s manic upticks, while he swings for the fences, sometimes to frightening effect. They mesh, they impress, and they move.