The Girl Next Door
Mania Days [SXSW 2015]
Review by Jeff Nelson
The Q&A session following a screening of Mania Days at SXSW Film Festival 2015 provided great insight on mental illness in cinema. Writer/director Paul Dalio mentions films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and while it's a great film, it doesn't relate very well to the actual illnesses it discusses. With Dalio being bipolar himself, he had difficulty finding films that accurately represent what it's actually like. Dalio ultimately created his own feature titled Mania Days which discusses mental illness as it relates to creativity, passion, and the human experience. This material is certainly heavy to digest, but it's remarkably impressive.
When artists Carla (Katie Holmes) and Marco (Luke Kirby) find themselves in a psychiatric hospital for being manic depressives, a romance begins to form. However, this new found love proves to bring out the beauty and the horror in their condition. As their families progressively develop deep concerns, the couple continues to experience the highest of highs, as well as the lowest of lows.
Before Carla and Marco even meet one another, the film displays that their meeting is absolute fate. The sun and the moon act as motifs, and the two lead characters fulfill those roles for one another. Marco goes by the name Luna with what appears to be the moon of Isis following him from one location to the next. Meanwhile, Carla has a fascination with the sun, as demonstrated by a poem that she wrote titled "Icarus." While they both have the same condition, they view it quite differently. Carla sees it as an illness that she wants to learn more about, while Marco believes that it's a blessing that has made him a greater artist. He decides to separate himself from society, but finally feels understood when he meets Carla. These are wonderfully complex characters that feel entirely real, which can be attributed to Paul Dalio's screenplay. The dialogue is tremendously genuine, the pacing is smooth, and the plot is both dramatically and personally fulfilling. Mania Days begins at a seriously fascinating point in Carla and Marco's lives, and they only get more intense from there.
As they continue to spend more time in the hospital with one another, they find themselves once again becoming manic, allowing them to feel an incredibly wide range of emotion. However, the doctors and their families view this relationship as being toxic for both of them, and attempt to tear them apart. The terms "illness" and "disease" become insults that alienate Carla and Marco from those around them. The Starry Night acts as their inspiration that they have the potential to be great. They strongly believe that the medication will remove their personalities and creativity. Marco finds himself craving the manic days, where he consistently felt passion in both his art, as well as his love for Carla. This is a love story unlike any other, as it's an incredibly personal journey that succeeds in all that it strives for. While it's certainly easy to sympathize with the two leads, we understand how the relationship heightens the symptoms experienced as a result of the mental illness. It's beautiful, but destructive at the same time. Filmmaking in this genre rarely gets as complex as it does here.
Mania Days is consistently brilliant, engaging, and thought-provoking. It's symbolic genius, as it relates to various iconic artists who had bipolar. As Dalio stated in his Q&A, this film isn't meant to lecture those with the mental illness, nor is it supposed to create an image of them to "sane" people. Rather, it's extraordinary storytelling that symbolically follows Dalio's experiences. It's dramatically impactful, but it still proves to be tremendously personal to the filmmaker. This is the first time that I have been moved by a production to this extent in quite a while. This story could have easily come to a conclusion with a series of predictable plot beats. Instead, it concludes in an incredibly appropriate fashion, just as the characters deserve. There isn't a single point where this feels like the generic personal struggle flick, but rather a journey that belongs in a league of its own.
Casting must have been one of the most difficult aspects of putting Mania Days together. Not only is this a personal story for Dalio, but if the leads aren't convincing, then the excellent screenplay will crumble in on itself. Luke Kirby delivers a surprising range that has the potential to reach the farthest of stars. His portrayal of Marco is particularly impressive during the character's manic phase. Even subtleties expressed in his vocal patterns make the character come to life. Katie Holmes is absolutely stunning as Carla. This is an Oscar-caliber performance that permeates the soul. The expressions in Holmes' eyes and the fidgeting nature of her body language truly sell the character. Holmes and Kirby share an exceptional amount of chemistry on screen, as they successfully deliver various phases of their lives to absolute perfection. If these performances aren't award-worthy, then I don't know what is.
Writer/director Paul Dalio doesn't have many credits to his name yet, but he has quickly become one to watch. Not only does he demonstrate a high skill level in writing, but his directorial efforts are just as impressive. There is a large number of canted shots being utilized in order to display a distorted perspective of the world, particularly during Carla and Marco's mania. The score is beautiful, yet haunting in a way that feels similar to a trance. The further that they fall into their mania, the more fantastical the visuals become. The picture becomes slightly fuzzy, as the scenes between Carla and Marco fade together. This creates the illusion that they are one being, or perhaps just passing by, similar to that of an eclipse.
Mania Days is not only the best film of SXSW 2015 Film Festival, but it's the best film of the year thus far. Writer/director Paul Dalio has crafted a screenplay that proves to be uniquely touching and superbly well-crafted. This symbolic story is made even more impactful with an impressive visual design that leaves a massive impression. Katie Holmes is electrifying and Luke Kirby is absolutely exceptional, making for two lead performances that deserve to be honored come award season. Mania Days is a masterful drama with an impact unlike anything else. Highly recommended!
Mania Days played at SXSW 2015 Film Festival on March 15th, March 16th, and March 20th.