Help—Mommy’s Bats!

CANVAS
Running Time 101 minutes
Written and directed by Joseph Greco
Starring Devon Gearhart, Marcia Gay Harden, Joe Pantoliano

In a touching independent production called Canvas, writer-director Joseph Greco makes a nice feature-film debut telling a true, disturbing story about a 10-year-old boy struggling to cope with a schizophrenic mother. It’s hard enough to get through adolescence in the best environment, but Chris (played with persuasive honesty and naturalism by newcomer Devon Gearhart) needs a strength most kids can’t imagine. His nutty fruitcake of a mom (Marcia Gay Harden, who specializes in portraying neurotics in crisis) is a continual source of angst, even on routine days—boarding the boy’s school bus and embarrassing Chris before his peers by smothering him with affection, inspecting his skin, and asking if he’s all right. Sometimes she bursts into uncontrollable fits of laughter at the dinner table for no reason. Sometimes her wacko behavior on the street, in the supermarket or behind the steering wheel borders on insanity. Finally, when she is dragged off to the psycho ward in handcuffs in front of the horrified neighbors, Chris experiences up close the meaning of “dysfunctional family.”

Turning to his dad for affection is normal, but not much help. The stress of watching his sick wife 24/7 leaves Pop no time for the attention the kid needs. Dad (Joe Pantoliano) is not too tightly wrapped himself—loving and caring, but preoccupied with his own loneliness and frustration. Taking time off from his construction job to spend all of his spare time building a sailboat in the front yard, he arouses the wrath of his neighbors, the police, and his own son too. The film is structured as a series of vignettes that show how the boy suffers, but eventually learns to make peace with his predicament, accept his mother for what she is and support his father with compassion instead of resentment for being peculiarly different. The boy matures faster than his parents, and young Mr. Gearheart deserves applause for the way he comes of age against impossible odds.

The film is based on the director’s own stormy and challenging childhood. With Canvas as evidence, I’d say he turned out O.K. What pleases me less is that it has the horrible, washed-out look of so many contemporary movies shot with digital video cameras. Frankly, Canvas is so hard on the irises, pupils and corneas it should be watched only after taking a headache powder. It’s Greyhound-bus green and as faded as an old dollar bill that was sent through the rinse cycle by mistake. For a movie so easy on the heart, it is hell on the eyes.