tly going crazy, suffering torments from peers, tThe wild visions and terrifying delusions of schizophrenia are hardly brand spanking new material to filmmakers. The basic plotline of the eccentric outcast abruphen being swept along by imaginative interpersonal drama between family members or love interests has actually become, at its best, a cliché.
But as Joseph Greco, director of the indie flick “Canvas,” which showed Wednesday night at the Whitney Humanities Center, said, the spectrum of movies—from “Pi” and “A Beautiful Mind” to “Donnie Darko” and “Me, Myself, and Irene”—that have already picked up and examined the subject, usually just do a single thing: romanticize and transform schizophrenia’s debilitating effects into shiny, blockbuster cash-ins. “Not everyone with schizophrenia is a genius or looks like Russell Crowe,” he said during a talk-back after the showing.
In light of this new and shocking fact, “Canvas” is evidently an attempt at a more honest view of the effects of schizophrenia. Realistic in that it is devoid of the extravagant Hollywood drama of other tales of mental illness, “Canvas” tells the more convincing story of a normal, middle-class Florida family coping with the disease and the simple, yet compelling ways in which each member turns to art for solace. Boasting expertly subtle and touching performances by Marcia Gay Harden (playing the role of Mary Marino, the overly-attentive and schizophrenic mother of ten year-old Chris) and Joe Pantoliano (in the role of Mary’s husband, John), the movie is worth watching simply because of their convincing portrayals of parents desperately trying to raise a family despite the devastating disease. However, the movie also suffers from several small flaws that rapidly pile up and detract from the audience’s ability to become fully immersed in the lives of these three distraught protagonists.
Portrayed through the eyes of Chris — the couple’s son, played by newcomer Devon Gearhart — the story that unfolds is certainly realistic in both plotline and setting. The Florida suburb where the Marinos live looks and feels like any other Miami suburb. At work, John frequently lapses into Spanglish around Cuban co-workers, and the Marinos’ car and home are convincingly well worn, unlike the intentionally messy and forcedly humble “middle-class home” sets of many higher-budget Hollywood films.
At the same time, however, “Canvas” often contradicts its own claim to being a thoroughly realistic portrayal by repeatedly putting characters, especially Chris, into ridiculously convenient situations in order to progress the angst, abruptly sucking viewers out of the plot. Schoolyard bullies, at unconvincing, too-opportune moments, somehow mysteriously teleport to within ten feet of wherever Chris happens to be, simply to give Gearhart another chance to put on a brooding, open-mouthed expression. From a skating rink to Chris’s own front yard, no place escapes the apparently incredible Mapquesting abilities of these two demented ten year-olds.
The child actors are not phenomenal, and the attempt at a romantic subplot between Chris and his crush Dawn (who, incidentally, is about a foot taller than the poor shrimp) wavers between painfully awkward and slightly endearing. Throughout the rest of the movie, the faces Chris puts on are often quite bland, however, and “endearing” is traded for “exasperating.” His prematurely teenage fits of angst add volume, though, if nothing else (“She’s crazy, and you are too! YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND!!” he screams to his father, at a sound frequency verging on what only bats and dolphins can hear).
Despite the forced acting, two scenes in particular stand out as powerful and affecting — even if they are, sadly, cut far too short in order to dwell on other, less interesting moments. In one scene, Chris has a nightmare in which he is the one with schizophrenia, and his fit of paranoia is portrayed in a frightening, realistic light. In another ineffably sympathetic scene, John is alone in the garage sobbing pitifully over an old photo album filled with pictures of his pre-schizophrenia wife.
Ultimately, “Canvas” is a sincere, humble film worth watching, and not without its moments of brilliance. Those favoring the high-stakes intrigue of flashy Hollywood dramas may be disappointed, but if such is the case, Greco’s informative and reassuring words at the Q&A session hold out the possibility of an infinitely more involving opportunity: “Most people first begin experiencing the symptoms of mental illness in their late teens and early twenties, when they’re in college,” he informed his audience. Hence, anyone willing to tell the story of an Ivy League schizo is more than welcome to … wait … haven’t we heard something like this before?