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‘Canvas’ Comes To Campus

‘Canvas’ Comes To CampusA chance encounter between Tufts child development professor Richard Lerner and Emmy-Award winning actor Joe Pantoliano led to a special screening of the feature film “Canvas” at Tufts.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [02.12.07] When Tufts child development professor Richard Lerner and actor Joe Pantoliano struck up a friendly conversation at a Penn State football game last year, they had no way of knowing that their chat would lead to a professional partnership. Not long into the talk, however, Pantoliano discovered that Lerner’s line of work naturally dovetailed with a project he’d just wrapped up: a film about the effects of mental illness on a family. The actor sent Lerner a copy of the movie, entitled “Canvas.” The rest is history, you might say.

“After seeing it, [Lerner] got very excited about the idea and he wrote a letter saying that it’s the best case study of the effects of mental illness on an American family,” Pantoliano told E-News on Jan. 28, when Tufts hosted a special preview screening of “Canvas.” Written and directed by Joe Greco, the film stars Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden (“ Mystic River,” “Pollock”) along with Emmy Award winner Pantoliano (“The Sopranos,” “The Matrix”).

Inspired in part by Greco’s childhood, “Canvas” follows one family’s struggle to cope when a parent is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Because of Tufts’ “impressive strengths in psychiatry, psychology and child development,” the Creative Coalition, a nonprofit, nonpartisan social and political advocacy organization of the entertainment industry, chose to hold an advanced screening of the film on campus, said Pantoliano, who serves as the organization’s co-president.

Before the screening, Tufts E-News talked with Lerner, the Bergstrom chair in applied developmental science at Tufts, Pantoliano and Greco about the film and the decision to preview it at Tufts. Here are some excerpts from that conversation:

On Canvas:

Lerner: The film is about what happens to a family when one of its members has a mental health challenge. In this case, Marcia Gay Harden, [who plays one of the main characters], has schizophrenia.

Pantoliano: During the course of the story, the character of my wife [played by Harden], is elevated from bipolar to schizophrenia and we lose our insurance. We lose our insurance and because of that we’re going broke, quick. Mental illness depletes the family. It depletes the family’s ability to function, to work, to continue on the drug therapy because it’s so expensive. These are the issues that this family goes through. But the movie really has a very hopeful ending.

Lerner: This is a film that more veridically than any other documentary, case study, or vehicle that I’ve seen portrays the reality of this in a way that doesn’t sugarcoat it, but also sends an important message of hope. It shows that every family has strengths, every young person has strengths and even afflicted people can overcome mental illness if the strengths of the family are captured and integrated.

On Meeting Richard Lerner:

Pantoliano: It was a very serendipitous meeting. It was nothing planned; it was a football game. It turns out that he and his wife, Jackie, were being acknowledged at this tailgate party because they used to work at Penn State where my daughter goes to school. Richard and I first started talking about this movie I just finished. I thought that it would be something of interest to them, so I offered to send it to them. After seeing it, he got very excited about the idea [of screening it at Tufts].

On Bringing “Canvas” to Tufts:

Lerner: If you think about it, Tufts has a distinguished department of psychiatry, a distinguished department of psychology, and a distinguished department of child development. All of those departments take a strength-based perspective to kids and families. This movie sends the message that there’s hope and you don’t have to feel stigmatized about having a mental health [problem]. That is important information to get out to the public.

Tufts is also a university that wants to be an active citizen, wants to be engaged in the community, and wants to use its knowledge to enhance the quality of community life. What issue could be better placed at Tufts than an issue of such vital importance to so many millions of Americans? Tufts is an ideal venue for all those reasons.

Greco: Before the film’s release, we wanted to have the opportunity to show it to the leading minds in mental health research, the leading psychiatry professors, both at Tufts and [in the Boston area]. The ultimate goal of the film is get the word out, combat stigma and provoke a discussion. We thought that Tufts was a great [place] for a meeting of the minds, no pun intended.

On Grassroots Publicity:

Greco: We’re a small movie, as Joey [Pantoliano] says, a small movie with a big heart. We made the film with very little money, so we don’t have the funds for a big PR campaign. This is how we’re going to get the word out about this movie. We’ve been invited to some film festivals and we’re in talks with distributors, but we think that it’s important to talk to students and let them have an opportunity to see the film first.

On the Creative Coalition:

Lerner: [Pantoliano] wants to start an initiative--either as part of the Creative Coalition or in a new organization--that will continue to advocate a positive de-stigmatizing approach to mental health issues. He wants to do this with partners that can help him bring the right research--high-quality research--to bear on these issues. I think that there may be a future set of partnerships between this initiative that Joey will be leading and the faculty at Tufts.

Written by Bic Leu (’07)


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