Melanie (Stefania LaVie Owen) is a high school senior and wrestling with all the normal anxieties that come with it. Her bright future promises to lead her in her late father’s footsteps across the country to USC. This choice creates great anxiety for her mother, who along with the normal complexities of losing a child to college, is fearful of an empty nest. What starts as a relatively generic coming-of-age story quickly turns into a much deeper story of family, love, and the struggles of a devastating diagnosis. When Melanie’s mother, Dawn (Lili Taylor), starts suffering from paranoid delusions, the seams of their family come apart, forcing mother and daughter to navigate their new reality. Paper Spiders is a beautiful story that is so much more than coming of age or a mental illness, but one of resilience, trauma, and love.
Finding Beauty Through Earnest Storytelling
The depth of this film is remarkable. Much of it comes from the story’s willingness to get ugly. Generally, coming-of-age stories can be glossy and simplistic. Even the more challenging ones, typically, find a gratifying resolution. The same can be said for films about mental illness, which is why Paper Spiders feels separate from those classifications. Melanie and Dawn’s relationship is put through the paces because of Dawn’s troubled state of mind, and we get no respite from that. We see what is at one time a sweet mother/daughter relationship completely fall apart, in the most heartbreaking of ways. As Dawn falls deeper and deeper into her delusions, she and Melanie grow farther apart. It is a horrifying reality that is true for many families in similar situations, and one that is hard to watch because of its earnest storytelling.
Inon and Natalie Shampanier bring this situation alive in the most honest way possible, but also with a lot of love for the characters. Dawn is never positioned as a terrible person and Melanie’s reactions to what is happening are always gracious. Even in the most hurtful and devasting situations, Melanie reacts with love, which in turn opens the heart of the viewer. Their relationship is beautiful to watch, even at its worst, the love between the two and their connection to the end is inspiring. Paper Spiders is not a story that is merely about a woman dealing with extreme mental illness, or a young girl coming of age. It is a story about the resilience of love and the sacrifices that sometimes need to be made. Sometimes that is ugly, and Paper Spiders isn’t afraid to go to the ugly places to find beauty.
Feeling the Experience
A lot of the film’s “uglier” situations come from Dawn’s experience. She is going through quite a tough time (to put it mildly). Not only is she suffering from paranoid delusions, but her mental state also pitting her against her neighbor with a fear that he is watching her. That experience is isolating, and that isolation grows with time because no one believes her. As Dawn sinks further into her psychosis, she is harder to reach. This causes her to sacrifice everything to protect Melanie and ultimately leads to complete isolation. Dawn feels alone. It’s isolating her from everyone, and that isolation seems more detrimental than the delusions that are leading to it. This experience is tough to watch, mainly because it feels so real.
Shampanier does an excellent job allowing us to feel her experience. Hearing and seeing everything along with her, brings her psychological state to life, and creates sympathy for her character. We also get a clear picture of who Dawn is before all of this starts. A smart, fun, and loving mother who is struggling with her daughter’s inevitable move across the country. Played so beautifully by Lili Taylor, Dawn is a character we can all see ourselves in. Her fear is real, her isolation is horrifying, and her struggle is tragic. It is a true testament to Taylor’s performance that even in her worst moments we never give up on Dawn. Taylor brings so much humanity to the character that the experience feels tangible. You understand that experience more and grow in empathy for those that are struggling with it.
Ultimately, that empathy is the beauty of this film. Not just for the Dawns out there, even though there is plenty of that, but also for the Melanies and their families that go through this struggle together. Lili Taylor may steal the movie from an acting standpoint, but the takeaway from this film is the family. The struggle that these two endure merely is because they were unlucky. Stefania LaVie Owen brings a powerful performance through subtlety and nuance. Wearing the emotions of each moment in her eyes. Eyes that are constantly searching to understanding while never losing sympathy. As her decisions become tougher, our empathy grows stronger. This is an impossible situation to be in and for this film to capture that is impressive. Paper Spiders is not an easy watch, but it is a worthwhile one. It’s emotional, earnest, and powerful. This is a film that won’t leave your mind after you watch it.
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