June 14, 2021


Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘Paper Spiders’ review: Lili Taylor plays delusion with conviction

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

College applications, high school parties, first love, graduation. In “Paper Spiders,” directed and co-written by Inon Shampanier, the specter of mental illness looms large over these typical milestones of the high school coming-of-age movie. A prom night pickup is bathed in the red and blue lights of a police cruiser; a graduation ceremony is interrupted by paranoid delusions. Even the handsome hunk struggles with alcoholism.

Lili Taylor stars as Dawn, the caring mother of the bright Melanie (Stefania LaVie Owen). Mother and daughter are two halves of a whole, sharing meals, crossword puzzles, even date nights. They are especially close since the sudden death of Melanie’s father a few years earlier, and with college looming in the future, Dawn is anxious about losing her, regretting that she encouraged Melanie to get straight As, while Melanie has her sights set on a scholarship at her father’s alma mater, USC.

Dawn is a bit quirky and obsessive, a charmingly neurotic and overprotective mother. But soon her fixations reveal themselves to be the manifestations of delusional disorder. She believes their neighbor is stalking and harassing her, and nothing will shake her attachment to this reality.

The situation is far too much for one teenager to handle, despite Melanie’s best efforts. The script captures her plight with a tragic honesty, emphasizing her vulnerability, despite being a smart and resourceful kid. She may have the fortitude but lacks the resources to address the gravity of the situation. Like most teenagers, Melanie’s concerned with mitigating embarrassment, but her self-preservation instincts are intact, and they have to be, in order to survive.

Taylor plays Dawn’s slide into this mental health crisis beautifully, and with conviction, and Owen is stunning as the high-achieving, yet fragile Melanie, who seeks oblivion and solace in a risky boyfriend (Ian Nelson).

Shampanier wrote the script with his wife, Natalie Shampanier, based on their history with her own mother’s struggle with delusional disorder. Along with the emotionally stripped performances of Taylor and Owen, that personal experience brings a rare honesty and authenticity to this film about mental illness.

‘Paper Spiders’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes

Playing: Starts May 7, Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Noho 7, North Hollywood; Galaxy Mission Grove, Riverside; also on VOD