This debut feature film by writer-director Joseph Greco dramatizes the impact of mental illness on the family. Mary Marino (Marcia Gay Harden) suffered the onset of a schizophrenic disorder in her early 40s, a couple years before the film's story begins, and her illness has made life very difficult for her, her husband John (Joe Pantoliano), and their 10 year old son Chris (Devon Gearhart).
Ms. Harden is quite convincing. She gets the furtive, doubting look of a distrustful, paranoid patient. She has emotional displays that are by turns inappropriately silly, sad or enraged. She is capable of socially disruptive, even dangerous, behavior. She makes shadowy references to outside forces that may have wired the house and are spying on everyone. She worries obsessively about her son's safety. She hears voices that cause her acute psychic pain. She's ambivalent about treatment. A particularly disruptive episode, one that causes commotion in the neighborhood, brings the police and Mary's readmission to the state mental hospital for extended care. John and Chris must carry on without her, and they do.
What's special about this film is it's central focus on the impact Mary has on her family. John is a good but simple man who works with his hands, a foreman for a house building crew employed by a developer. He tries to do right by Mary and Chris, but his coping skills are limited and often sorely tested, and he can react blindly at times out of his frustration. The role of John, wonderfully managed by Pantoliano, is reminiscent of Peter Falk's character Nick, the frantic, bumbling yet obviously caring husband of a psychotic woman, in John Cassavetes' 1974 film, "A Woman Under the Influence."
It's good to see Pantoliano playing a sympathetic character for a change, not the usual nasty fellow we know from his Teddy in "Memento" or Ralphie Cifaretto in "The Sopranos." Ten year old Devon Gearhart is a delight. He not only has charm, but conveys a remarkably broad range of emotional responses joy, wonder, embarrassment, anger, sadness that seem entirely natural and authentic.
We see and feel Chris's extreme embarrassment when Mary rushes aboard a school bus to embrace him and reassure herself that he is safe. When Chris spends his birthday at an amusement park with friends, Mary arrives unannounced and uninvited with a birthday cake to crash the kids-only party. Chris takes abuse from his peers in the aftermath of such episodes: they taunt him about his crazy mother. He begins skipping classes as a result. Chris and John are both put to pain when Mary erupts in the waiting area of a restaurant, and on another occasion when she wildly dashes outdoors in a rainstorm and creates a flap.
There is a brief bedroom scene while Mary is home on pass from the hospital, when lovemaking is interrupted because Mary is frightened of her skin being exposed and must peek through the drapes to be sure no one outside is watching. It is subtly made clear that her preoccupations have stifled John's arousal, and we can imagine this has happened before. We also share times of nostalgic reminiscence and bereavement, when Chris or John pauses, tearfully, to recall happier times with Mary, before her illness, and mourns the loss of the wife and mother they once knew.
The ending is somewhat ambiguous. John and Chris have cemented a mutually supportive relationship, while Mary is away in the hospital, by building a sailboat together. When the boat is finished, and the fellows invite Mary to join them on its maiden voyage, she is still in the hospital and quite symptomatic, hearing voices and experiencing difficult mood swings. Mary musters enough insight to realize that if she accepts the invitation, her behavior could deteriorate and spoil the day for her loved ones. So she declines to go along.
The voyage is a huge success: we can feel and see the bonding that occurs between father and son. The next scene at first glance seems to show Mary with John and Chris aboard the boat, perhaps on another outing soon after the first. Instead, in an inspired sight gag, the boat is revealed to be resting atop a trailer being pulled around the hospital parking lot. Mary is obviously contented, relaxed, at peace. Her husband and son are close by and also happy. It is the picture of a normal family at play, and these final images conjure the impression that Mary has turned a positive corner on the road toward health.
The fact that the film has a happy, hopeful ending does not trouble me. It is perfectly plausible for a person suffering from schizophrenia to make significant strides toward regaining normal emotional experience and behavioral self control, with effective treatment. My concern is that viewers of "Canvas" who are uninformed about schizophrenia might leap to the conclusion that Mary has made great strides toward recovery in a very brief time, failing to consider that this may just be another transitory mood. Such viewers might also attribute her improvement to the loving, inclusive attitudes of her family, rather than to proper psychiatric treatment. (On first viewing I myself had such a take; I had to see the film a second time to gain critical perspective.)
Of course we know that good professional care and positive family support are not mutually exclusive influences for the better: they serve synergistically to aid recovery. The ambiguity at the end aside, "Canvas" offers a uniquely insightful, compassionate perspective about mental illness within the context of the family. It deepens our appreciation for families who must carry on their own lives while enduring heartaches and a great sense of loss when their afflicted loved ones undergo radical disruptions of their psychological integrity and capacity to return their love. My grades: 8/10 (B+) (Seen in 01/07).
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