Canvas was up against nine other films in the narrative competition at AFI Dallas but lost to Shut up and Shoot Me, a dark comedy written and directed by Steen Agro.
Maybe it's because I like underdogs or have a special interest in films that take on the stigma of mental illness. Maybe it's because writer/director Joseph Greco and producer/star Joe Pantoliano seem to have so much heart and enthusiasm. Or, maybe I was just so relieved that this film lacked the ickyness and whimsy of Running With Scissors. Whatever my motive, Canvas gets my one and only "film I'm willing to stick my amateur reviewer neck out for" vote.
In Canvas, a father and son cope with the schizophrenia of Mary, mother to Chris and wife to John, as they resist accepting that she'll never get better. The character driven story plays real and the heavy situations work while still allowing you to breathe. Primary actors portray their roles to perfection and some of the simplest dialogue is carried out with wit and charm. Father and son become estranged and separately find unique ways to bury their own fears, yielding good things for them and comic moments for us.
Portions of the film are lethargic and if I had to guess, I'd say the problem is editing because the film feels longer than it really is. It's just not tight enough and we never get a good sense of time within the film either. Supporting roles are hit and miss and I never enjoyed the score until the last very last scene.
Pantoliano said that Canvas didn't start out as an "issue" film. I don't believe him. Greco based the story on his own life with his schizophrenic mother. But issue films aren't a bad thing unless they cram something down our throats and Canvas doesn't do that. Instead, it invites us to witness events without jerking our hearts around too much. Plus, it ends on an upbeat, although confusing, note of acceptance.
As I was watching a scene in Canvas where the boy is being teased in school about his mother's illness, I was remembering my niece and her friend, Sarah. Sarah's mother was put in a mental hospital not too long ago after holding police at bay in her front yard with her hair dryer while threatening to "blow them away". True story. Sarah went to live with her grandmother and every day Sarah attends school where kids know about her "crazy" mother.
While Canvas is making the film festival rounds, has won a few awards and has even appeared at a mental health symposium, the main reason I'd like to see success for Canvas is not so much because of the film's creative merits or even because Eddie and the Cruisers were singing "Tender Years" in my head while Pantoliano posed for a photo with me. It's because even if this film is only used by schools, hospitals, and mental health support services, I think there's a place for it.
Mental illness is a matter that affects the entire family and Canvas filmmakers crafted a movie that most of the family can actually watch. Pair that with Pantoliano's announcement that, as of Saturday, the film had secured distributorship and Canvas could just be a small step for all of the Sarahs out there.
Canvas, The Film
Composer, Joel Goodman