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Film Review: “Paper Spiders” Offers a Moving Study of Mental Illness

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 6th, 2021

Film poster: “Paper Spiders”

Paper Spiders (Inon Shampanier, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.

Melanie is about to complete a successful high-school career, graduating as salutatorian and probably destined to get into her dream school, USC. That’s where her father went, and since his death a few years prior she has thought of little else than to follow in his footsteps. She and her mother, Dawn, have a close bond, though it would be nice if the latter weren’t so controlling to those around her, including the campus tour guides on their college visit. Still, what mother doesn’t simply want the best for her child?

So begins Inon Shampanier’s Paper Spiders, and at first we’re not sure if this will be a coming-of-age tale for Melanie or an empty-nester drama for Dawn. As it turns out, the plot takes a turn for the unexpected, courtesy, at least initially, of new neighbors whose arrival proves consternating, especially when the husband backs into a prized tree (“dad’s tree,” apparently). Soon, the resulting confrontation blows up into something far more serious, the neighbor stalking the mother-daughter duo and attempting to break in.

l-r: Lili Taylor and Stefania LaVie Owen in PAPER SPIDERS ©Entertainment Squad

Or not. For Dawn, it seems, may be hearing and seeing things that others don’t. Suddenly, what should be a triumphant homestretch for Melanie turns, instead, into a year of increasingly fraught mental-health crises. Try as one might, it’s virtually impossible to help someone who refuses to see the problem. And so, commencement and life beyond high school approaching, Melanie must struggle to find a path forward, not only on her own, but in opposition to her mother.

Certain kinds of dramas can be especially hard to watch, and for this reviewer, those that deal with breakdowns prove some of the most difficult. There’s something about seeing the helplessness of all involved that affects my inner empath, not dissimilar to how I feel when immersed in a story about addiction. Fortunately, Shampanier (The Millionaire Tour), working off a script he co-wrote with wife Natalie, leavens the tragic circumstances with occasional humor and engaging side narratives. We are thereby granted some kind of reprieve from the pain, however powerful it might be, of watching dawn and Melanie fall apart.

l-r: Ian Nelson and Stefania LaVie Owen in PAPER SPIDERS ©Entertainment Squad

And then there’s the superb cast. As Melanie, Stefania LaVie Owen (The Cat and the Moon) is the heart of the movie, her palpable anguish affecting us throughout. Lili Taylor (The Conjuring), always a strong presence, manages to find a variety of nuances in her portrayal of, as it is called here, delusional disorder. I once lived with a flatmate who suffered from a similar condition; that hardly makes me an expert, but in my eyes, she does the illness justice. The rest of the ensemble, including Ian Nelson (Summer Night) as a lovesick classmate of Melanie’s, are equally fine.

Despite these high marks, there are nevertheless many times when the movie appears to oversimplify its conflicts, rushing through the big scenes with a glib remark or two, or cutting away from a scene after but a few words have been exchanged. Perhaps the filmmakers experience the same discomfort as I (and surely others) do when immersed in such a story. The ending also feels too pat, though I appreciate that it still has a good deal of complexities. These notes aside, Paper Spiders – and the title is explained at the end, perhaps a little too literally – remains a mostly moving study of the toll of, and treatment for, mental illness, buoyed by strong aesthetics and actors. As such, it deserves celebration and respect.

l-r: Stefania LaVie Owen and Peyton List in PAPER SPIDERS ©Entertainment Squad
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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