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'Paper Spiders' deftly deals with complicated mental health issues

Phil on Film
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Posted at 11:32 PM, May 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-04 23:32:31-04

TUCSON, Ariz. — A college-bound high school senior, Melanie's got bigger things on her plate than graduation announcements, Senior Ditch Day, and prom.

The hardest lessons in her life come from Dawn (Lili Taylor), her mother, who battles mental health issues that she refuses to acknowledge she has.

"Paper Spiders" -- which opens in theaters and VOD May 7 -- takes a long, often excruciating look at the challenges of trying to help a loved one dealing with paranoia and delusions. Fueled by Taylor's showy performance and Stefania LaVie's muted angst as Melanie, the drama avoids the usual Hollywood shortcuts as it sketches its painful portrait.

Whenever Melanie confronts Dawn with reality, she responds with rage, threats, insults, and separation. Channeling her scholarly energy into the problem, she researches ways to help, speaks to a counselor, and even sets her mom up on a date. Some efforts appear to make progress, while others may do more damage than help. Lost and alone, Melanie struggles with her sense of powerlessness.

Director Inon Shampanier, who co-wrote the film with his wife, Natalie Shampanier, shows a calm and nuanced touch when dealing with mental health issues.

Trapped in a prison of her own mind, Dawn lashes out against her boss, her neighbors, and, especially, Melanie because she is the one who is around most often. Melanie is forced to walk on eggshells, never sure what challenges her wildcard of a mother will present.

With strong supporting performances by Peyton List as Melanie's frenemy and Tom Papa as Howard, who takes a romantic interest in Dawn, the film thrives as much for what it isn't than what it is. A movie with more questions than answers, it's a heartening journey of struggle, failure, and perseverance.

"Paper Spiders" offers no happy endings and no hard-and-fast solutions. All Melanie can do is just survive and keep on trying. Persevering through the dark clouds of mental illness to see the light of a new day is a victory unto itself. The movie is just as triumphant.

RATING: 3.5 stars out of 4.
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