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02.14.16 4:45 AM ET

Katie Holmes’s Big Middle Finger to Scientology

The former Mrs. Tom Cruise has rebounded with one of the finest performances of her career in Touched With Fire, a film about the importance of psychiatry.

In the seven years Katie Holmes spent trapped in her heavily guarded relationship with Tom Cruise, we hardly knew her. The doe-eyed actress with the steely-soft smile landed nary a choice role of note during her high-profile TomKat years, while fans watched her disappear behind a prim bob and a wearied Mona Lisa smile as the paparazzi flashes popped.

That’s why, when she split from Cruise in 2012 after nearly six years of marriage, the world exhaled on her behalf. But when the newly single Holmes returned to the acting game, she notched mostly disappointing results. Now—finally—Holmes is rebuilding her movie career with her best starring role in a decade. Even better: Her new pro-psychiatry film is a giant middle finger to Cruise’s beloved Church of Scientology.

Cruise’s devotion to Scientology set off alarm bells back in 2005 when he blasted Brooke Shields for taking antidepressants to battle post-partum depression. Talking to Matt Lauer on The Today Show, he became visibly agitated, decrying the practice of psychiatric medicine. “You don’t know the history of psychiatry,” he insisted in front of fans who’d come to see him promote his sci-fi blockbuster War of the Worlds. “I do.”

The battle cry earned a sharp rebuke from the American Psychiatric Association. “It is irresponsible for Mr. Cruise to use his movie publicity tour to promote his own ideological views and deter people with mental illness from getting the care they need,” said APA president Dr Steven Sharfstein.

But the church’s violent opposition to shrinkdom and generally accepted psychiatric treatment of mental illness dated back decades, of course. Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard hated “psychs” and insisted they were shady and unethical. Controversial Scientology leader David Miscavige reportedly made the organization’s anti-psychiatry agenda plain in a 1995 address in Copenhagen: “Objective one—place Scientology at the absolute center of society. Objective two—eliminate psychiatry in all its forms.” And the film Going Clear claimed that Cruise’s second wife, Nicole Kidman, was labeled a “Potential Trouble Source” because her father was a renowned psychologist in his native Australia.

So it’s not hard to guess that Holmes’s ex and his Scientology crew probably won’t give rave reviews to the new indie drama Touched With Fire, about two bipolar poets who meet and fall in love while stuck in the same psychiatric ward.

Given the reach and fearsome reputation of the church, it’s no small gesture to see Holmes, newly freed of the shadow of Scientology, taking on a film whose messages include an unequivocal endorsement of psychiatry—let alone one with such a clear message. The 37-year-old stars as Carla, a bipolar poet who checks herself into a psych ward during a particularly intense episode. There, she meets another bipolar patient, Marco (Luke Kirby), who goes by the name “Luna” and believes he’s from another planet. 

Together they ponder the link between mental illness and creative artistry, fall in love, reject their meds, make manic art and love, and send their concerned families into a panic as they try to make a life together sans treatment.

It all comes crashing down as their lives-off-meds spiral out of control, one mania-induced crisis after another. Author and psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, who penned the book that writer-director Paul Dalio based the film on, even makes a cameo as herself advocating better bipolar living through medication.

“I gained a greater empathy for people who are struggling with mental illness,” Holmes told More last month. “Before the movie, I’d hear something about it and think, ‘Wow. But that’s over there.’ Unfortunately, we’re quick to judge, especially in this day of social media and the Internet—which I think is an ugly-maker. Everybody looks ugly when they’re on the Internet. But I wouldn’t want to live a flat life, with no pain.” 

Holmes has played relatively nice and NDA-safe so far in her post-divorce interviews, deathly careful to focus on motherhood and positive messaging rather than tabloid-fodder Cruise chatter. On the promo tour for Touched With Fire, she’s been refreshingly alivechanneling Beyoncé, the Queen of self-empowered fierceness, and boxing our Ryan Reynolds on The Tonight Show while playing a round of Musical Beers. It’s as if the mojo she lost is finally being replenished. Hopefully that carries through in her creative choices from this point on, too. To see where they went astray, let’s rewind through the last decade in Katie Holmes, Movie Star.

Holmes, solidly successful off a series-long tenure on Dawson’s Creek, was working her way through the start of a promising career-making run when she began dating Cruise, her onetime celebrity crush in the summer of 2005. In her life B.C. (Before Cruise), her varied filmography showed range, ambition, and a daring indie spirit, from Go to Pieces of April to Batman Begins and beyond. But while her turn as a morally flexible reporter in Thank You For Smoking drew raves, it also marked the end of the beginning for Holmes.

Holmes has made a point to say that her marriage to Cruise never prevented her from working, per se. But said work during the TomKat years tells a dire story. Over at Rotten Tomatoes, her 2006-2012 period is a telling collection of rotten green splats and buffer years of understandable inactivity—one in 2006 when she stepped away from the limelight to give birth to daughter Suri, and another when she split from Cruise and the Church of Scientology in 2012.

Holmes’s Cruise years onscreen, meanwhile, are bookended by two of her highest-profile duds. Start with Mad Money and you trace a path through indies that fell flat (The Romantics; The Extra Man; The Son of No One), to the only Adam Sandler blemish on her résumé: Jack & Jill. Hey, maybe Holmes has a forgivable excuse for making bad choices back then. What’s Al Pacino’s?

The rebuilding period hasn’t been without its hiccups. Holmes gave Broadway a shot but mostly stuck to the screen. Until Touched With Fire, not a single one of Holmes’s recent films could be considered either a critical or commercial success. She’d eased herself back into the game in the Chekhov-update ensemble Days and Nights, but despite packing serious indie-bait talent with William Hurt, Ben Whishaw, and Allison Janney among the cast, the film came and went in the fall of 2014, earning a blistering 0 percent Tomatometer rating. It was, and still is, the worst-reviewed film of Holmes’s career. 

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Holmes had been chased her entire career by the ghost of Joey Potter, everyone’s favorite girl-next-door. Being publicly stuck in a celebrity marriage to a global megastar defined by his wacky outbursts and perennially “on” charisma had dimmed Holmes’s spunky persona. Audiences were barely seeing her on the mainstream screen as Holmes opted for smaller projects. She dipped her toes back in the Hollywood studio world in 2014 with a supporting turn in The Giver, but even that wannabe YA lit blockbuster was a box office disappointment. 

Later that year, Holmes mixed it up as a vigilante schoolteacher in the black comedy-thriller Miss Meadows. Her character, described as a “Pulp Fiction Mary Poppins,” was all about defying expectations; even the poster was The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag meets Serial Mom—Holmes, in a retro dress and Mary Janes, coldly pointing a pistol out of frame. While critics praised her performance, they weren’t so keen on the film itself, which was relegated to a limited release. 

In 2015, Holmes’s career approach seemed to shift. She appeared with Helen Mirren and Reynolds in the drama Woman In Gold. More significantly, she helmed, produced, and starred in her own directorial debut, All We Had, about a single mother and her 13-year-old daughter. Through it all, television had been pretty good to the Dawson’s Creek alum; now again, it gave her some of her best opportunities as an actor. She landed a Season 3 recurring role on Showtime’s edgy drama Ray Donovan, flexing rarely seen muscles as a master manipulator. After starring as Jackie Kennedy in the 2011 mini-series The Kennedys, Holmes reprises the role—this time, as Jackie O.—in Reelz’s upcoming follow-up, The Kennedys After Camelot, which she will also direct. 

It’s that spark and spirit—low-key taking on Scientology without taking on Scientology in movies like Touched With Fire, tackling surprising characters against type, and seizing control of her own destiny behind the camera—that we’d like to see more of as we enter a new age of Katie Holmes. 

“With age I’ve gained confidence,” she told More after shooting All We Had, relishing in the newfound power of directing—and directing herself. “I understand the kind of stories I want to tell. I have more experience in the business. I feel more certain.”