When filmmakers set out to tell stories about declining mental health it becomes something of a high wire act to engage an audience without exploiting the subject matter or plunging into melodrama. Without the tabloid lure of a famous life at its core, and in less careful hands, Paper Spiders was in danger of falling into the safety net of broken woman tropes we have seen too many time before.
Instead, co-writers Inon Shampanier (who also directs) and Natalie Shampanier have crafted a small but poignant and authentic look at the impact of psychosis, elevated by the powerful performances of Lili Taylor and Stefania LaVie Owen, and shaded by their real experiences. The Shampaniers were inspired by Natalie’s mother’s own struggle with persecutory delusional disorder.
Melanie (Stefania LaVie Owen) and her mum Dawn (Lili Taylor) share a close bond – drawn tighter by the sudden death of Mel’s father – tolerating each other’s quirks and celebrating any tentative steps towards healing. Mel is adept at cheerleading her mum out of her worst excesses of negativity and Dawn at keeping her daughter on track towards college and her bright future.
Then the seemingly innocuous, though thoughtless, actions of a new neighbour trigger something in Dawn; fears of persecution which at first unsettle and then entirely undo her. Taken in isolation, her mum’s concerns seem plausible so Mel humours her. But Dawn’s unshakable belief that this stranger is trying to destroy her is soon revealed to be a danger much closer to home.
Inon Shampanier and DP Zach Kuperstein deftly maintain the intimacy of Paper Spiders’ domestic setting while ratcheting the tension, ensuring that we feed early uncertainty about the new neighbours with our own thriller-trained presumptions and are further unsettled by the truth. The real horror of Paper Spiders is how easily dark thoughts can spiral out of our control.
Six Feet Under showcased Lili Taylor’s extraordinary range and here once again she is able to command the screen. Dawn is made all the more tragic by her dignity and steely strength and when she breaks it is genuinely affecting. The moments of hysteria or rage, when they finally come, are delivered in stabs of cruel words and callous disregard for love or loyalty.
LaVie Owen delivers a standout performance too. Her refusal to indulge the lazy flirtation with rich boy love interest Daniel (Ian Nelson) evolves believably into affection and trust. And the moment when Mel recognises the codependent trap she is falling into with him and pushes back against it holds a really strong message for teenage girls, who are too often told to be kind.
At the centre of Dawn’s spiral is rejection, rejection of reality and ultimately of her daughter and it is painful to see Melanie navigating college alone. This perhaps explains the Shampaniers’ impulse to tie any loose ends into a nice optimistic bow after all that trauma and a trite TV movie wrap up in the closing minutes – complete with plinky-plonky music – feels unworthy of the journey to get there.
Paper Spiders will be released on 7th May 2021. May is Mental Health Awareness month.