This drama film centers on Melanie (Stefania Lavie Owen) a teen about to graduate high school planning to go to USC to study medicine like her late father. Melanie and her mother Dawn (Lili Taylor) are shown to have a close relationship in the wake of Melanie’s father’s passing. For her part, Dawn is portrayed as somewhat over-anxious and neurotic.
One day, Dawn accuses their next door neighbor of being verbally aggressive after she and him get into an argument that Melanie never sees. As time passes, Dawn becomes more and more convinced that this unseen neighbor is following her and otherwise persecuting her and Melanie with an increasing intensity of accusations. Starting with throwing rocks at the windows, progressing to building equipment designed to torture her. At first, Melanie dismisses these notions as an exaggeration of her mother’s anxiety due to her leaving for school. Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that Dawn is suffering from delusions and has been for some time. The remainder of the film follows Melanie as she tries to balance loving and helping her mother whose condition worsens, with her desire to have her own ordinary teen experiences. Meanwhile, Dawn tries to convince Melanie and others that what she is experiencing is real and that she needs to protect herself and those around her from this threat.
Director and writer Inon Shampanier and co-writer Natalie Shampanier craft a very thoughtful story with this film. It would be easy for this film to be a coming-of-age story that features mental illness as simply a gimmick or new wrinkle to an established formula. Here however, the Shampaniers instead give audiences a brutally honest portrait of how when dealing with mental illness, it can fully consume not just the person with the illness, but the people closest to them. The script gives full respect and attention to all of its characters.
We the audience go on Melanie’s journey as her confusion turns to fear and eventually anger as she realizes the extent of her mother’s illness. At the same time, the film spend’s enough time with Dawn so the audience empathizes with her frustration over the fact that people seem dismissive and belittling of her pain and suffering, which to her is genuine. It is this thorough examination and empathy which helps ensure that the film does not come across as an exploitation but a study in how mental illness affects people and their relationships.
Audiences will latch onto the film in large part due to the dimension of the characters, and the actors here bring these characters to life completely. Stefania Lavie Owen steals the movie, playing the full range of Melanie’s emotional journey without ever slipping into overacting as someone striving to be a loving daughter while also maintaining her sense of self. Lili Taylor is also superb as Dawn, embodying the anger, isolation and resentment of someone who feels that those around her are not taking her concerns seriously, and how dealing with mental illness can strain individuals professional and personal relationships.
The two leads also do a great job at crafting a dynamic that implies a genuine bond and history, with their own unique hobbies and idiosyncrasies. Ian Nelson also gives a strong supporting performance as Daniel, a boy in Melanie’s class pursuing her affections who has some mental health struggles of his own. Not only does this romantic subplot add depth to Melanie’s character and story, but Daniel’s struggles provide Melanie with insights about her mother.
In addition to a strong script and cast, the soft piano heavy score by Ariel Blumenthal serves as the perfect accompaniment to this quiet, thoughtful character study. In addition to the original music, songs from Lily Kershaw compliment the score beautifully without being overbearing and the lyrics perfectly suit the themes and story.
Paper Spiders is a film that thoroughly, honestly and empathetically looks at mental illness and many of its ramifications. Featuring great writing, two strong leading performances, and great music, viewers should seek this film out.
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