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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Canvas

IntroductionCanvas - Minds on Film blog

Canvas was written and directed by Joseph Greco and released in 2006. It is Greco’s first feature length film and is based on his own childhood experiences. In the director’s statement about Canvas, Greco wrote “I grew up watching my mother battle schizophrenia and those harrowing memories had a profound impact on me.”. Generally viewed as giving an accurate portrayal of a mental illness, the film has been well received by both critics and mental health professionals. It deals compassionately with the wider effects that a psychotic illness can have on a partner and child living in a small community. Greco chose to shoot the film in Hollywood, Florida where he grew up. There are superb performances by Marcia Gay Harden as Mary, Joe Pantoliano as her husband John, and Devon Gearhart as their 10 year old son Chris, who is extraordinarily convincing in his central role. The film explores the strain that a psychotic mental illness can put on a family and shows how each individual finds their own particular coping strategies to survive the more difficult times.

The Film

The film opens with Mary and her son Chris being reunited after he returns from a stay with relatives in Alaska. It soon becomes clear that the reason for his trip away was that Mary has been mentally unwell. The awkwardness of the bond between mother and son is obvious as she urges him to put on a floral dress and pose for a portrait that she is painting. Shortly after his return home, Chris is woken at night by the flashing blue lights of a police car that is returning Mary to their house in a state of distress. As the scenes unfold we learn that Mary has a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and became unwell about eighteen months earlier. She has been prescribed various medications, none of which seem to have brought stability to her mental state as yet. On another night, when experiencing paranoid delusions, Mary becomes so disturbed in her behaviour that she threatens her husband John and accidentally hurts Chris. On this occasion the police handcuff her and take her to hospital where she is compulsorily admitted.

Chris attends school, clinging to this normality in his life as he tries to make sense of the frightening experiences he has witnessed as a result of his mother’s illness. Unfortunately, he encounters the ignorance and cruelty of certain schoolmates who bully him by making fun of his ‘crazy Mum’. As he struggles to maintain a regular routine at school, his father copes with the stress of his wife’s illness in a very different way, by deciding to build a sailboat. He tells his son that he and his mother first met whilst sailing and that he intends to make her a boat that will help her to recover her former self. However, John becomes increasingly absorbed in his project to the detriment of parenting his son and soon the school bullies are taunting Chris about his ‘weird father’ too. Chris, upset and angry with his father, seeks his own connection with his absent mother, by discovering he has a talent for sewing using Mary’s sewing machine. Just before being hospitalised, Mary had made Chris a patchwork t-shirt to cover up a tear in the fabric of his top and Chris copies this technique to make another shirt for a school friend who admires it. With her support, he soon finds that other school friends are asking for patchwork shirts too and he begins to make and sell them on a wider scale. This activity absorbs him, boosts his self-esteem but also keeps him connected to his mother.

Throughout this time, Mary is seen in the psychiatric hospital, at first medicated and struggling to comply with treatment before gradually beginning to make a recovery aided in part by her love of painting. However, the challenges to this recovery are well portrayed during some home leave for Chris’ birthday, when Mary insists on giving him a homemade cake in front of his friends, causing him huge embarrassment. But for Mary the feeling of rejection at this moment is palpable and one knows that her sensitivity to the knocks of everyday parenting will be an ongoing test. Chris seems to mature before the viewer’s eyes by this point in the film as he realises that he and his father must unite in the face of their stresses in order to survive and to support each other. By this time, John has decided to give up his boat project and focus on parenting his son, but Chris suggests that he helps his Dad to finish constructing the sailboat hoping that this will actually bring them closer together. It does just that and in the process Chris hears more about his mother before her illness developed. John and Chris plan a sailing trip together again as a family, when Mary is well enough to leave hospital. This is not achieved in an orthodox manner, as the viewer sees at the very end of the film, but this shows that sometimes achievements must be measured in very personal ways.

Relevance to the field of Mental Health

Canvas provides an opportunity for the viewer to gain an empathic understanding of what it might be like to live with a loved one who has paranoid schizophrenia. The suspicion and fear of persecution that Mary suffers is sensitively portrayed both at home and in hospital, highlighting how difficult it can be to persuade someone to accept medication in this state of mind. This could be used as a good example for teaching about compliance and the assessment of an individual’s mental capacity to consent to treatment.

Canvas would also provide a good platform to discuss the recovery model, which now has a greater focus throughout mental health services in the UK. Mary’s family do not give up hope and continue to support her in her role as wife and mother to the best of her ability, however difficult this may be when she is ill. The film emphasises the role that positive loving bonds can play in providing a stable framework in which recovery can take place alongside the psychiatric treatments being prescribed in hospital or in the community. There is an excellent article entitled Recovery and the medical model by Deborah Mountain and Premal J. Shah in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment (2008) 14:241-244 that could be used to enhance learning on this topic.

• More information about Canvas can be found at IMDB, as can a short trailer.

Canvas can be purchased at amazon.co.uk, although it is only available as a Region 1 DVD.

• Minds on Film is written by Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Joyce Almeida

 

 

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About this blog

 

Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida
Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.