SXSW 2015 Review: ‘Mania Days’ Grounds the Pixie Dreamgirl
Mania Days asks a very profound question about art and mental illness. If you took all the artists who were or would have been diagnosed with mental illness, would you give up all the art they created to get them healthy with treatment? Fortunately, the answer is not either/or and Mania Days is a compassionate drama about caring for our loved ones and nurturing their creativity.
Emily (Katie Holmes) and Marco (Luke Kirby) are both authors diagnosed with manic depression. Manic episodes land them both in the same institution for treatment, where they connect through their manic episodes. This also raises important ethical questions about allowing patients to date (the doctors are understandably against it). There’s ultimately no stopping grown-ups from doing what they want, so Mania Days gives us an unfliching but sensitive look at what a relationship between these two people entails.
You know the drama is going to be intense when it begins with confrontations and goes from there. Emily is trying to find out what triggered her condition, as she remembers an unafflicted youth. This is a mature and responsible question, but it only exacerbates her mania. Marco thinks the answer is dropping out of society’s paradigm, going off the grid as it were, but he should know that raises red flags too.
Both Kirby and Holmes are extraordinary. For Holmes in particular, Mania Days is a manifesto announcing her dramatic cred. She’s never been given a role this complex and it takes her to the next level. She is so ferocious and full of life, and that is in some ways the condition. Too much life and vitality becomes unmanageable and we see the struggle internally and externally. Kirby speaks fast in metaphors and abstractions, but the film gives us the full spectrum for both characters – during treatment and medication and when those treatments fail.
Writer/director Paul Dalio captures the feeling of mania and the fog of sedation with editing, bringing scenes set at different times together. Some subtle effects in the background enhance the feeling without drawing too much attention to technique. His script addresses the complexity of living with and caring for someone with manic-depression. In particular, I was pleased with the way the benefits of medication gets a fair shake.
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The conundrum is that mania feels good, so a patient may not want to give that up despite its consequences. There is a connection to creativity, as Marco’s list of artists attests, but it’s not a simple matter of “take the meds and stop being creative.” There are ways to manage it, but it’s a process unique to each patient. Then if you’re in a relationship, what if the two partners have different reactions to medication? That’s more drama.
The families of Emily and Marco are given fair portrayal too. For Marco and Emily, trying to communicate with someone who’s not manic is volatile, but the characters speak intelligently. It’s not the usual condescending “we know what’s best” talk that would vilify the supporting characters. There are dangers associated with this condition if untreated, but forcibly advocating a certain treatment can just push your children away. Yet when Marco is claiming to be from another planet, you can’t really have an argument. You can have compassion though.
Mania Days is an important film for advancing sensitivity towards mental illness. With compassion for both the afflicted and the unafflicted trying to comprehend it, it’s the sort of film that can create understanding on both sides and forward the conversation. These are just added benefits though. It is a great drama with great performances. The distribution deal should include a guarantee of Oscar campaigns for Holmes and Kirby.