If you’d got a mark next to April 7th 2021 in your diary, it might be because you’re celebrating Mother’s Day in the US, or you’re looking to towards Mental Health Awareness Month. Or maybe you could be doing both, since they’re hardly exclusive; moms are a big part of our development, and how we take care of those who once took care of us is a perennial issue. Husband and wife team Inon and Natalie Shampanier tackle that subject head-on with Paper Spiders, an indie drama about a student’s fractured relationship with her mother. In truth, you don’t need a special day or month to watch this; it’s a strong, effective film.
Curly of hair and long on agency, Stefania LaVie Owen plays Melanie, a smart young girl heading to a pre-med course at USC. Melanie is still living at her Syracuse home at 17, but her mother Dawn (Lili Taylor) isn’t seeing the world quite so clearly. Dawn is suffering from paranoid delusions about her neighbours’ activities, and while Melanie struggles to navigate drugs, boys and other teenage problems, her mom’s erratic behaviour threatens to overshadow traditional traumas like prom and graduation.
Although it delves into some dark matters, it’s important to emphasise that Paper Spiders is a positive and upbeat film. This is no starchy PSA, but a thoughtful and serious-minded film that deals adeptly with mental health issues, with a mother-daughter relationship firmly at the centre. As co-writer and director, Inon Shampanier manages to coax universally strong performances, with nice supporting work from Ian Nelson as a charming beau with a booze addiction and Max Casella as a salty private detective; there’s a throwaway line he delivers about how trying to rescue a drowning man can doom you to the same fate that rings true as something learned from experience. There’s also a terrifically well-chosen selection of music on the soundtrack by Ariel Blumenthal, and the comic portrayal of Melanie’s guidance teacher is worth the rental alone.
Family dramas are poorly served by today’s studio pictures; Paper Spiders harks back to classics Ordinary People or Terms of Endearment in mining family relationships for dramatic ore and creating an engrossing story from the results. Owen and Taylor are the centre of this picture, and they shine. Paper Spiders works best as an indie without studio trappings; it’s a smart, affecting film that has the caustic eye for teenage angst and parental love that The Gilmore Girls had, and that’s high praise indeed from this critic. So let’s not label this a mental illness drama, but instead focus on an upbeat, universal story about family, how it hurts ,and how to set about repairing the damage done, a good message for any day of the week, month or year.
PAPER SPIDERS hits theaters and VOD platforms on May 7th, which is Mother’s Day weekend and the start of Mental Health Awareness Month.
Thanks to Prodigy Public Relations and Entertainmnet Squad for access to this film.