Paper Spiders

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Paper Spiders
"A sensitive and artfully constructed film."

Dawn (Lili Taylor) is afraid. The neighbour has damaged the tree at the edge of her garden. It's just a little thing, but he's also been throwing things into her garden. Little things add up. She sees him watching her. Then, at night, she hears somebody just outside her house. Why won't anybody listen when she tries to get help?

In the vast majority of films, Dawn's fears would turn out to be justified. In the majority of real life situations, they would not. Daughter Melanie (Stefania LaVie Owen) loves her mum and wants to protect her, but gradually comes to the realisation that she might be seriously mentally ill.

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A sensitive and artfully constructed film, Paper Spiders, which has its roots in co-writer Natalie Shampanier's own life experience, explores the relationship between two people trying to act rationally and lovingly in a world which makes less and less sense. They're under particular strain at this time because Melanie, 17, is preparing to take up a place at college and move away from the family home. Her father has been dead for some years and there is no-one else to look out of her mother. Could there be something real behind Dawn's fears or is her conviction that she's in danger simply a manifestation of panic at the prospect of being left on her own? Director Inon Shampanier keeps us guessing for a long time, carefully limiting what we see. In the end, it might not make much difference. If Dawn is not in danger from her neighbour then she could be in danger from herself.

There's a desperate sadness about this film which will be all too familiar to people who have cared for emotionally vulnerable loved ones. Whilst Dawn tries desperately to keep them both safe, Melanie is struggling to find the space in which to work out who she is and what she really wants as a young adult. She embarks on a sweet romance with a boy who may have troubles of his own, but a lot of her energy is taken up simply by trying to avoid domestic disaster at the same time as studying for, and attending, essential exams. Paper Spiders is a cri de coeur for young carers, of whom there are some 700,000 here in the UK. When Melanie is publicly humiliated by her mother's behaviour, one longs for others to make the imaginative effort to consider what she might be going through.

The Shampaniers never let their film become overwhelmed by sadness, however. There's a great deal of warmth in the bond between mother and daughter, often expressed through humour. The two leads developed a close connection during filming and it really shows onscreen. This allows for an approach to pacing which gives viewers room to breathe and keeps us alert to just what is at stake. There is no othering here of the sort that's commonplace in films dealing with mental illness. Dawn behaves as anybody might if they went through what she is experiencing. Melanie recognises this and they struggle to hold onto one another as their diverging perceptions of the world pull them apart.

There's a rare depth of storytelling here that keeps the film feeling real. The material is beautifully handled in a way that makes it easily accessible without any dumbing down. Paper Spiders is a smart, highly evocative piece of work that you won't want to miss.

Reviewed on: 07 May 2021
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A bittersweet story about coming of age in the shadow of mental illness.

Director: Inon Shampanier

Writer: Inon Shampanier, Natalie Shampanier

Starring: Peyton List, Lili Taylor, Max Casella, David Rasche, Stefania LaVie Owen

Year: 2020

Runtime: 109 minutes

Country: US

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