Filmmaking as therapy can be just what the doctor ordered. The problem is whether it's the filmmaker's doctor or the audience's. Woody Allen worked out some of his relationship issues pretty entertainingly in Annie Hall, for instance, and we all enjoyed his road to recovery. (OK, he later lapsed, but that's not the point.) Writer-director Joseph Greco appears to be working out issues of his own in this semi-autobiographical—maybe more like three-quarters-autobiographical—drama about a Hollywood, Florida 10-year-old whose mother develops schizophrenia.
I'm sure it was cathartic for him. For us, not so much. Heaven knows Greco is unflinching about the sometimes less-than-noble reactions and attitudes that even a loving family can exhibit in the face of mental illness. But the film as a whole is small and slow-moving, and not in a way that means finely detailed and pensive.
It takes a fair bit to realize that it's a period piece, first of all. You're jarred out of the drama when you see a couple of regular patrolmen handcuffing schizophrenic, middle-aged Mary Marino (Marcia Gay Harden) in her home, since standard procedure almost everywhere in the U.S. is to have social workers and an ambulance on the scene. Husband John (Joe Pantoliano) bitterly notes that his HMO won't cover Mary's medication, which leads you to think this is a more contemporary story—HMOs only started to have a presence after 1977, when federal regulations and certifications changed. But then you notice there are no cell-phones or home computers, and eventually you see kids with roller skates rather than inline skates. You can appreciate Greco's attempt to be both subtle and universal, but wondering about the era removes you from the spell of the story. (Greco got his Florida State University film degree in 1994, so figure he was born around 1973 and that the movie takes place in ’83.)
Most of that story involves young Chris Marino (the ethereal and hard-to-read Devon Gearhart) and his contractor father dealing with Mary's hospitalization. John funnels his anger and grief into building a sailboat, like the one on which he and Mary had met. Chris is a bit more cast adrift, so to speak. He skips classes to go gaze at the ocean in melancholy, endures schoolyard embarrassment over having "a crazy mom," and sews designer t-shirts in order to make some much-needed money for his struggling father. Complicating his feelings is a first-crush storyline with sympathetic and business-minded classmate Dawn (Sophia Bairley).
Harden is reliably remarkable as the mom—right from the get-go when all she's doing is saying hello to her son, who's back from a summer away with relatives—and Pantoliano, who helped produce, has an achingly believable father-son rapport with Gearhart. The family dynamics feel real, with John a complicated character who loves Chris but resents having to make time for him, and whose anger can erupt inappropriately, however understandably. But dynamics aren't the same as emotion, and father and son move along a plateau devoid of dramatic build-up, making the movie a string of repetitive events and long, long takes of characters just…staring at things. Mom paints on canvases, the sailboat's sail is canvas, and Chris is maybe a metaphoric canvas. And as it unfolds, unfortunately, we're watching paint dry, a boat becalmed, and a boring boy.