Husband and wife writing team Inon Shampanier and Natalie Shampanier wrote PAPER SPIDERS from personal experience, which gives it that extra gloss of authenticity. While it does not reflect the factual truth of the struggles they had with Natalie’s mother and her diagnosis of persecutory delusional disorder, it does convey the emotional truth of seeing someone you love deeply, someone you rely on, slip away from you into mental illness. The result is a film glowing with compassion even as it charts the stark reality of what it is like to live with, and around, mental illness.
The mother in this case is Dawn (Lili Taylor), described by her loving 17-year-old daughter, Melanie (Stefania Owen) as quirky and a little neurotic. As the film opens, they are touring USC, where Melanie hopes to study pre-med on a full scholarship. Dawn would rather she stay with her in New York, where she can live at home, a house that has become very large after the sudden death of Dawn’s husband. It’s not that Melanie wants to leave her mother so much as she is seeking a connection to her father, who attended USC.. As high-school graduation nears, Dawn becomes pre-occupied with the new neighbor, who scraped a tree in Dawn’s yard and was rude when confronted about it.
The obsession and paranoia grow, making it impossible for Dawn to have a normal life, and leaving Melanie, salutatorian of her class, at first unable to accept that there is a problem, and then floundering about what to do. She’s also going through the throes of a romance with the brooding and pugnacious Daniel (Ian Nelson), who has his own issues with addiction and family that form a poignant juxtaposition with Melanie’s.
The tone of the film shifts from light-hearted as mother and daughter banter with what is obvious affection to dark, a shift foreshadowed when Dawn tells Melanie that all have is each other. It’s a small moment, but Taylor’s bright-eyed delivery has a hint of the darkness to come. A cute first date that Melanie arranges for Dawn with Howard (Tom Papa) turns into a disastrous follow-up when Dawn tells him about her delusions. She loses her job of six years after what Melanie learns in the final straw of Dawn’s ongoing self-destructive behavior.
Taylor delivers a performance of power, anguish, and vitriol. As she gradually drifts further into her paranoid delusions, there is something terrifying in the way she refracts reality to suit her paradigm with such conviction. Watching the absolute certainty with which she tries to convince Melanie and others that her neighbor is stalking her, using exotic machinery to cause her physical pain via electric waves, is so compelling that, against all reason, you want to believe her. There’s also the vulnerability she gives Dawn in even her most vicious moments. She never lets us forget that beneath this illness is a woman who has been wounded by life and is reacting by trying to create the order and security she lost and is losing, by seeing patterns and conspiracies that don’t exist, but, for her at least, need to. Owens holds her own. Melanie’s pain at being torn apart by a mother who is no longer responsible is anything but passive. As she grasps at straws, including consulting with an ineffectual school counselor (Michael Cyril Creighton) with too many issues of his own to get beyond his befuddlement, there is a subtle incredulity on her face that also shows confusion slowly ripening into fear. As the film progresses, she strikes the perfect balance between being forced to grow up too fast and developing the tensile strength she is forced to find within herself.
PAPER SPIDERS is brutal in its honesty. It refuses to pander to its audience with platitudes or rainbows, while at the same time, it never demeans Dawn for her condition, nor strips her of her humanity. Instead, we have a fully realized, unforgettable portrait.