Canvas: A Movie with Many Dimensions

by Robin Cunningham Patient Expert

It is a rare event when a motion picture presents paranoid schizophrenia in a responsible and accurate light. Canvas, which is due for release in five U.S. cities on October 12th of this year, is just such an event. We are thankful for it.

The movie is a remarkably honest and unembellished account of a father and a ten year old son's firsthand experiences with a mother attempting to cope with schizophrenia, a mother who loves both of them dearly despite her illness.

The mother in this story is struggling with auditory hallucinations (voices), paranoia, distorted thinking, anxiety, and perhaps even thought insertions.

A more detailed summary of the plot can be found at

With this blog I will add some observations about the film by comparing selected aspects of this complex brain disorder and associated effects as portrayed in the film with my own experiences. I have lived with this potentially devastating brain disorder for over fifty years, so I have some measure of experiential authority.

I will start by saying that Canvas is exceptionally well done. With widespread distribution, it could play an important role in fighting mental health stigma. It neither embellishes nor sensationalizes the basic truths about schizophrenia.

One important aspect of Canvas is that its author/director, Joseph Greco, has NOT diluted the film by trying to include all of the many potential symptoms of schizophrenia. These are sufficiently complex and interrelated in ways that would exhaust an audience. The film paints a much clearer picture without all this detail. Also, there are no composite characters. Nor does the director indulge in stereotypes. And equally important, there is no gratuitous use of bedlam or chaos, yet the agonies of the father, mother and son are palpable.

Marcia Gay Harden does a masterful job of portraying the demonstrable features of schizophrenia, but more importantly, with body language and facial expressions she draws out of her character and openly displays the devastating mental, emotional and physical affects of the illness for all to see.

Canvas also bears witness to the fact that some medications are helpful for some people but not for others. While current medications can increase the functionality of a person suffering with schizophrenia dramatically, there is no panacea, no silver bullet. The reactions to available medications differ from consumer to consumer, as well as over time and most introduce complications in the form of unwanted or uncomfortable side affects. For some individuals, medical science has yet to develop effective medications.

When I first became ill there was only one medication available and it did very little to help. Under the supervision of my psychiatrist, I tried every new medication introduced until we found one that worked for me.
It took us ten years. The irony today is there are so many medications one can look long and hard before they find the one that works best for them. I took this same medication for over forty years and did very well until one day, with any warning, it simply stopped working.

There is no cure for schizophrenia; recovery is a life-long process. In this movie it is accurately shown that even with treatment, in this case the taking of the various antipsychotic drugs available, there is no assurance of recovery. While the mother has periods of partially restored functionality, as is often the case in real life, those periods are brief and she returns to the full-blown symptoms of a disease which is constantly worsening.

The scene where the mother, Mary, is taken out of the home by the police to be hospitalized in a mental institution is realistic and all too common. The fear shown by the mother and the helplessness of the father and son is a gut-wrenching reality of so many consumers and their family members.

The husband and father John Marino, played by Emmy Award winner Joe Pantoliano, and the son Chris, portrayed by newcomer Devon Gearhart, are shown throughout the movie running the gamut of feelings so typical of family members attempting to cope with this new and unexpected ordeal. During the mother's earlier stages of illness the father and son become more and more estranged as the father labors overtime at his construction job to pay medical bills.

When Mary is taken from their home, John is overtaken with frustration, quits his job and begins work on a sail boat with the hopes of teaching his wife and son the wonderful world of sailing. This extreme in behavior is not atypical of the reactions of a family member.

The completion of the sail boat did bring the father and son closer together, but a typical Hollywood ending was avoided when the hope that the mother would join them on the high seas never materialized, a reminder to all of us that schizophrenia does not follow a predictable script.

I highly recommend the viewing of this movie by consumers, family members, providers and the general public. I will make it a point to remind and update readers on the showing and distribution status of this enlightening film. I also hope to interview the director and/or actors to gain additional information and perspective. So, be watching for at least one more blog about the movie, Canvas.

The perspectives on mental illness I provide are not those of a psychiatrist, psychologist or licensed clinical social worker, but rather a consumer and family member. I have walked the walk on both sides of the street. As such, I can speak with experiential authority. It is my objective to share with you, as best I can, what my experience with a serious brain disorder has been like on a day to day basis, i.e., to compare notes with you. Equally important, I will also make observations about being a family member and advocate based on my own experience. Any observations or comments you choose to make in return will be of great value.

Robin Cunningham
Meet Our Writer
Robin Cunningham

Robin wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Schizophrenia.