Mental illness isn’t an easy topic to adapt for the big screen since doing so oftentimes forces a writer into making the choice between pain and hope. Not everyone survives an affliction like delusional disorder and not everyone who suffers from it is able to hold onto a support system with the strength to help. For every story you hear about a person giving up his/her dream to be with someone they love as a constant tethered to reality comes another where the volatility became too much to bear before necessitating an escape with no turning back. There’s a delicate balance that must be struck between those ends of the spectrum because one generally doesn’t exist in isolation from the other. It’s a struggle without any clear answers.
For director Inon Shampanier and co-writer Natalie Shampanier to tackle something so complex is therefore commendable whether or not Paper Spiders proves a complete success. They’re juggling the requisite empathy both lead characters need to avoid falling prey to stereotype; creating scenarios that can potentially provide healing as well as anguish simultaneously; and spotlighting the harsh reality that these tragic circumstances will bleed into every facet of their lives since Dawn (Lili Taylor) and Melanie (Stefania LaVie Owen) don’t live in a vacuum. They don’t get to deal with the former’s accelerated paranoia (ignited by the sudden death of her husband two years prior and exacerbated by the latter’s impending graduation and subsequent cross-country move from New York to the University of Southern California) solely behind closed doors.
Dawn has a career and bills to pay while also being her daughter’s champion. Melanie has school to finish academically and socially alongside her best friend Lacy (Peyton List) and possible prom date Daniel (Ian Nelson). So how do those things become impacted once a new neighbor accidentally tears into the tree on their front lawn with his moving truck? At first it’s merely tangential. Dawn believes this stranger (Brodie) has a vendetta against her, but it’s nothing so serious that either woman thinks about it outside of the house. What begins as a series of isolated incidents, however, soon makes way towards a full-blown psychotic break. Dawn suddenly thinks her boss (David Rasche’s lawyer Bill) is compromised and that she’s being attacked by electromagnetic pulses.
The stress caused by her growing sense of isolation works to sabotage the few months Dawn has left with her teen before the big move. TV time and dinner become hijacked by unhinged outbursts and actions to the point where Melanie can no longer ignore that there’s a legitimate problem. So her stress and anxiety increases too. The weaker Dawn’s grasp on reality, the more she internally restructures her motivations and thus her ability to be a reliable parent. Melanie loses control over those things that used to be givens like a ride to school. Her very calculated existence threatens to topple as this infrastructure’s rapid disintegration pushes her to alcohol and escapist distractions from an inevitable explosion only made more volatile the longer it’s postponed.
Their journey together can seem avoidable as a result since an outsider perspective will have you yelling at the screen to call for help. So much of what occurs can be avoided if Melanie pursues psychiatric assistance for her mother, but doing that isn’t easy. She’ll have to betray her mom’s confidence. She’ll have to throw Dawn into the fire and risk alienating her for the rest of their lives since she is all she has left. Is it really a surprise then that Melanie attempts to mitigate the issue instead? After meeting with her way-above-his-head guidance counselor (Michael Cyril Creighton’s endearingly humorous Mr. Wessler), she seeks to give her mother something else to focus on via a dating app. No Band-Aid, however, can truly fix this wound.
And that’s where Paper Spiders does lose itself during its middle third. Just because we know many teenagers would act the way Melanie does in her predicament doesn’t automatically make watching her descent into chaos resonate. Enjoying Mr. Wessler’s comic relief via his lending what little experience he has to the problem doesn’t negate the fact of gross negligence upon making things worse when he should be the mature adult suggesting real professional care. I’m also not certain what a scene with Melanie taking too much marijuana and spiraling into her own brief bout of paranoia adds since its “in your shoes” experience doesn’t alter how she handles what comes next. It doesn’t give her insight beyond the intent to provide the audience a superficial parallel.
I did like what the Shampaniers did with Melanie’s friends, though. It’s a bit on-the-nose as far as surrounding her with sufferers of compulsive behavior, but having Lacy be addicted to sex and Daniel be an alcoholic does compound the reality that we all have struggles that demand personal accountability before healing can begin. Melanie can’t “fix” any of them unless they too want to be “fixed” (itself an ablest term considering these types of behavioral disorders have no actual cure). She needs them all as falling dominoes to break free of her conditioned desire to wish their disparate problems away rather than confront them head-on. She needs to experience the hurt they’re capable of providing before she can resign herself to what must be done.
So don’t worry when discovering there are still about twenty minutes left of runtime after a huge blow-up occurs that most films would have let be their conclusion. The story simply has more to say whether you agree with the choices or not. It doesn’t matter what you’d have done in Melanie’s situation. Not everyone reconciles this level of blame, toxicity, and guilt in the same way. Not everyone gets the chance to either. Melanie does, though. It’s predicated on a transparent plot contrivance set-up right from the start, but it remains a possibility for healing nonetheless. It’s therefore a testament to Taylor and Owen’s performances that their desire to use it rings true because the inherent sacrifice is a hefty price to pay. The reward is simply greater.
Paper Spiders is currently playing the Buffalo International Film Festival’s online edition.