★★★ / ★★★★
Chris (Devon Gearhart) has spent the past summer with his aunt in Alaska and has recently returned to Florida for the school year. Part of the reason he went away is to have fun during his time off. The other part involves his mother, Mary (Marcia Gay Harden), having schizophrenia. The medications she has been prescribed has become less effective so she is more prone to endanger herself and her family. Her husband, John (Joe Pantoliano), finds himself ill-equipped to handle his wife’s mental illness.
Written and directed by Joseph Greco, while “Canvas” offers nothing particularly new in terms of movies dealing with schizophrenia, the fact that the story is told through a ten-year-old boy’s perspective allows the material to become a little bit more accessible. Each time Mary’s condition is discussed in private or comes to light in a very public space, it is interesting that the camera has a tendency to zoom in on the boy’s face.
Gearhart is quite impressive in emoting a conflation of embarrassment, anger, and confusion. It made me think of how I would have reacted if Mary were my mother. The movement of the camera is not only designed to capture our protagonist’s emotions but to win over our sympathies. By limiting our physical scope of the situation—as opposed to the camera capturing the conflict around Chris—it dares us to question the fate of the boy. Given that schizophrenia can be passed on biologically, is what Chris seeing a premonition of what he might potentially go through in the future?
Despite the love that his mother and father have to give to him, is it right for him to be in an environment where safety is a gamble? These questions do not have easy answers and the screenplay is smart to offer only possibilities. Chris does not really understand his mother’s affliction and neither does John. A lot of people are likely able to relate to them. In one of the small but key scenes, John expresses his frustration toward his wife’s doctor. “The medicine was supposed to make her better,” he demanded.
Like Gearhart, Pantoliano is so good in expressing many conflicting emotions at once. It may seem like he is angry at the doctor for a lack of an effective treatment, but the camera focuses so much on his face to the point where we see that the person he is really angry toward is himself—perhaps for allowing himself to put his complete trust that medicine will control the affliction completely.
Of course, no one is to blame and, in my opinion, that is probably one of the reasons why the illness feels so unbearable for the families who choose to live with it. “Why can’t you act normal?” the son asks his mother once they get home after she embarrasses him in front of his friends. It sounds like an insensitive question but I admired the material is brave to bring it up. The way Mary answers her son is so simple and so moving, it assured me that no matter what happens, this family will be all right.
“Canvas” has a sense of humor, too. From Chris taking up sewing as a hobby to the way he is reduced to mush when his crush (Sophia Bairley) comes up to talk to him, the small victories feel earned. The film reminds of us two things. First, we only get one family so it is worth really trying and making it work. Second, certain types of sadness in our lives, no matter how hard we try to push, never really go away. But that does not mean we cannot still go on and live our lives.