Paper Spiders is a well-crafted, moving, bittersweet portrait of a deteriorating psyche, and the way any human suffering can be transcended with an open heart. Led with standard virtuoso skill by Lili Taylor, as Dawn, a woman on the edge, and an emerging, dedicated talent of Stefania LaVie Owen, as her daughter Melanie, it cuts close to home for the filmmakers, the duo of director and screenwriter Inon Shampanier and co-screenwriter Natalie Shampanier, husband and wife – the story a reflection of the latter’s heartbreaking experience with her own mother. This experiment in screen intimacy could have gone either way, given the personal stakes embedded in the material, but turned out to be a triumph.
The piece is penned with warm & wry wit, and never loses its authentic beat, while the camera brightly veers into unexpected corners, from the first shot, observing the everyday goings-on with a curiosity and alertness of an atypical sort of perception. Acting as counterpoint to the soothing sounds of the initial often-trodden trope of mother-daughter banter, it offers this slightly twisted point of view to a story that we have already seen told. The eccentric ways of the mother are met with the dryly amused understanding of the daughter. The film could have begun and ended there. If this were a romcom. And you are deliberately lulled into believing that it might be just that.
It takes a while to get a sense that this is one of those colourful fairground rides that ends in a hefty bill and broken bones, as no one has read the hazardous small print. The birth of tragedy from an inherently comic juxtapose.
Dawn is what one might call a careful, observant person, and from where I come from (which is the Balkans) she would not be an unusual neighbourhood fit, but mid-America she sort of is, yet her inquisitive intricacies are subdued by the regularity and containment of her life, until that life is ruptured by the sudden death of her husband. And then, all those inner square pegs in society’s round holes begin to emerge.
Early on in the story, as Melanie seeks professional help for herself, in coping with home life, Dawn is sheepishly (yet accurately) remote-diagnosed by her daughter’s school therapist (Michael Cyril Creighton) as having a delusional disorder, otherwise known as paranoia. Which then gives us ample time to witness, in stunned silence, how that condition can derail a human with the speed of a runaway train – given the right triggers.
Part of me was irked at just how much timely information could have perhaps stopped the extent of Dawn’s spinning out of control, reigning in the accelerated timeline of a disorder seeded in an emotional attachment to a web of miniscule pieces of misinformation forming a skewed, and ultimately, psychotic framework of reality. But that crucial missing piece comes only at the end, and finally helps Dawn voluntarily confront her mental illness, which led her and her daughter almost to ruin, and seek the right sort of help (therapeutic, rather than litigational).
In the meantime, pending the epiphany, it is the intelligent, coolly composed, precocious 17-year-old Melanie that takes to the task of being a de facto carer for her mother, who first loses her job (shout-out to the wonderful David Rasche as Dawn’s lawyer boss), then all her comforts, and finally her daughter, in a battle of imaginary wills, fighting off an invisible enemy, a neighbour who has once been rude to her, and is now in her mind threatening to invade every corner of her being, in an ever-present capacity. Dawn also hires an almond-milk-drinking private detective (Max Casella), for the purposes of counter-surveillance, himself an amusing presence, somewhat of a comic relief, who turns out to be a decent man, and earnestly finds nothing of interest. All this magnified angst Melanie endures stoically, trying on different tactics of psychological support, even helping Dawn find a suitable, fun date (Tom Papa), inevitably ending unsuccessfully, and at the same time coming of age in haze of profound change and young love – along a charming, alcoholic love-interest (Ian Nelson), a competitive flirty bestie (Peyton List), and with a drive to follow in her dead father’s footsteps, and secure a scholarship to a fancy med school, being the clever girl she is.
Melanie gets a bitter taste of her mother’s inner landscapes when one particularly difficult night (police in attendance, et al), and an explosive altercation with Dawn, she gets paranoidly high wired on too much weed. She also finds out that the state of paranoia itself is more often than not successfully rooted in seeds of actual reality. Which is how it can take hold.
In allowing Dawn to be who she is, no matter the external damage, Melanie shows her a love that is true, waiting steadily on the other side, when the loved one is ready to give up the fight to be right in her beliefs, and open up to be helped, but most of all, accepted.
The beauty of Paper Spiders, which has only one major fault – its pastel finale, a sweet but too neat a wrap-up, is that no one is really the villain, not the caring but careless boyfriend, not the loyal but disloyal best friend, not the mercantile but supportive private detective, not the protective yet abusive mother, and finally not the devoted but detached daughter, all of them desperate to keep their hard-earned personas tightly fastened in the face of an all too human vulnerability, and the possibility of actual connection.
Author: ©Milana Vujkov