First-rate performances, an uncompromising point of view and a fresh take on a well-worn movie subject — madness — make helmer-scribe Joseph Greco’s debut “Canvas” the kind of indie feature that could easily cross over from festival awards to respectable B.O. success. Auds will experience the joy of discovery in Greco’s fact-based drama — not just in its perspective on schizophrenia and the effect of the disease on one Florida family, but in Joe Pantoliano’s cliche-demolishing performance as a sensitive family man who loves his wife no matter how paranoid, delusional or destructive she becomes.
Greco, who apparently based the script on his own life as the son of schizophrenic mother, has constructed a story that works both as a domestic drama and an allegory about mental illness and art.
Ten-year-old Chris Marino (played with naturalistic grace by newcomer Devon Gearhart) returns home from a stay with relatives, obviously having been sent away while matters are sorted out with his schizoid mother Mary (Marcia Gay Harden).
Nothing is ever sorted out, of course; she experiences voices, delusions, paranoia and her ravings bring police to the house and neighborhood enmity on the family. Chris, meanwhile, tries to weather it with the help of his father John (Pantoliano).
Chris’ breakthrough at school occurs when he wears a shirt his mother has mended, with a clashing patch sewn across the chest. When his schoolmates admire it, Chris claims he made it, and gradually he becomes trendy shirtmaker to the middle-school fashionistas. It’s his mother’s inspiration, of course, that is behind the shirt, which serves as a kind of battle flag for the artistic and mentally ill.
Meanwhile, John, being cheated by his boss in between being hassled by cops coming to the house, decides to build a boat in his driveway. It’s an irrational act — Greco’s point being that the line between eccentricity and disease is a very fine one indeed.
Harden is well known for painting precise, no-holds-barred portraits of characters in such celebrated films as “Mystic River” and “Pollock.” She maintains her own high standards in “Canvas,” the title of which refers to both the healing properties of art and the blank slate of childhood.
The revelation in the film, however, is Pantoliano, best known for inhabiting sociopaths like Ralphie Cifaretto in “The Sopranos” and lowlifes like Teddy Gammell in “Memento.” His performance as the working stiff/faithful husband is a delightful surprise.