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Film Review: ‘Paper Spiders’ Offers Anxious Tension Sprinkled With Unexpected Laughs

Support for those with mental illness is severely lacking in many areas of the world. Without patient cooperation or understanding of their specific disorder, numerous obstacles may arise. Movies revolving around mental disorders do not always do these individuals justice, or they show many over-the-top tropes. To have a film encompass mental illness and do so with grace and understanding is rare to say the least, and Inon Shampanier has done just that.

Paper Spiders chronicles the story of Melanie, a 17-year-old played by Stefania LaVie Owen who lives with her mother Dawn, portrayed by Lili Taylor. Melanie begins observing alarming psychosis with Dawn when a new neighbor moves in next door, and a disturbing series of paranoia ensues, pushing the limits of a mother-daughter bond.

Lead actress Lili Taylor shines on screen as Dawn. Taylor’s performance reflects the idea that Dawn is convinced that her delusions are real. Many scenes are difficult to watch, and likely very hard to act, but Taylor does a stunning job. Despite taking part in many dramatic scenes, her performance still feels understated, which leads one to believe that casting Taylor as an individual that is battling mental instability was a perfect choice.

Stefania LaVie Owen steals the show as a teenager in distress that is grappling with what to do when her home life crumbles around her. Owen is believable with every line she delivers and every expression she utilizes to express Melanie’s many sentiments. Owen and Taylor have wonderful on-screen chemistry, even during grim moments on screen, which makes the mother-daughter relationship all that more convincing and real.

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While many may not adore the character of Daniel, actor Ian Nelson boasts a strong performance. Daniel exhibits a different type of mental illness than Dawn does, and his role serves as a fellow teenager that Melanie can relate to. Nelson portrays a hard-to-like character but it is impossible to deny his skill as an actor, with this performance being one of his strongest.

Director Inon Shampanier has a very bright future. Paper Spiders is only the fourth addition to Shampanier’s directing roster, and sixth for writing. The director co-wrote the film with Natalie Shampanier, whose resume lists this as her third written work. Inon’s distinct touch in both writing and directing elevates the film to another level. Audiences will feel a sense of delusion and paranoia at what may happen through the wonderful dialogue, expert acting, and skillfully structured circumstances that transpire.

Stressed moments notwithstanding, there is a healthy amount of humor that is laced into the lighter notes of the movie.  Actress Peyton List, who plays Lacy, offers most of these flashes of laughter with Lacy’s quirky yet matter-of-fact dialogue and List’s delivery of those lines. Throughout the 109 minute runtime, the humor dwindles and a more serious air fills the picture, but the lighter notes that can be found in the beginning are appreciated and noted. 

Cinematically, there are numerous shots in this picture that are unique and will captivate audiences. There are various unique settings that are exhibited throughout the movie, including a piano bar, a dark restaurant lit solely by candelabras, and a manic spinning scene in a bathroom. These add a beauty and texture to the film that others do not have, which should be applauded.

Besides being a well-crafted film, Paper Spiders is a public service announcement regarding mental health resources in the United States. Viewers will thoroughly enjoy the storyline, but be left with a lingering feeling of wonder at what can be done to support the individuals and families of those suffering from mental illness. For those with a very small social circle, help seems out of reach. When that is paired with legal limitations on involuntary patient care, it feels impossible, and for many it is. This movie does a beautiful job at shedding light on these concerns. Anyone who watches it will feel the urge to advocate for those who cannot necessarily advocate for themselves amidst a cloud of mental instability.

If you’d like to watch Paper Spiders, it will be available on demand beginning May 7th, 2021, during Mental Health Awareness month. If you or someone you know needs support in regards to a mental disorder, visit www.nami.org to research available resources. 

SCORE: ★1/2

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Written by Kendall Tinston

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