Review: ‘About My Father’ (2023), starring Sebastian Maniscalco, Robert De Niro, Leslie Bibb, Anders Holm, David Rasche and Kim Cattrall

May 26, 2023

by Carla Hay

Sebastian Maniscalco and Robert De Niro in “About My Father” (Photo by Dan Anderson/Lionsgate)

“About My Father” (2023)

Directed by Laura Terruso

Some language in Italian with no subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Illinois and in Virginia, the comedy film “About My Father” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few Latinos and black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An Italian American hotel manager in Chicago travels with artist girlfriend and his hair stylist father to Virginia, to meet the girlfriend’s Anglo Saxon wealthy family, and various uncomfortable situations occur because of different ethnic identities and socioeconomic classes. 

Culture Audience: “About My Father” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and predictably subpar comedies about tension-filled family gatherings.

Kim Cattrall, Leslie Bibb and David Rasche in “About My Father” (Photo by Dan Anderson/Lionsgate)

“About My Father” is just a mishmash of scenes that look like stale leftovers from a second-rate sitcom. Robert De Niro is doing another “grumpy old man” character that he keeps doing in awful comedies that fail to match the quality of “Meet the Parents.” De Niro has not made a really good comedy film since 2000’s “Meet the Parents,” in which he co-starred as a stern potential father-in-law to a neurotic male nurse (played by Ben Stiller), who meets this patriarch and other would-be in-laws for the first time during a family gathering.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that “About My Father” (directed by Laura Terruso) is a weak imitation of “Meet the Parents,” but with no real charm and with characters that mostly look very phony. “About My Father” has so many of same plot points and gags as “Meet the Parents,” the screenwriters of “About My Father” should be ashamed to call the screenplay “original.” Sebastian Maniscalco (who stars as the nervous bachelor in “About My Father”) and Austen Earl co-wrote the shallow and derivative “About My Father” screenplay. “About My Father” has such a lack of imagination, Maniscalco portrays a character who has the same name as he does.

Just like in “Meet the Parents,” the plot of “About My Father” is about an insecure American man in Chicago who meets the conservative, wealthier parents of his blonde, thin and pretty girlfriend at the parents’ family home. In “Meet the Parents,” the bachelor is Jewish and works as a nurse. In “About My Father,” the bachelor is of Italian heritage and works as an average-level hotel manager. Both movies use various ethnic and socioeconomic stereotypes as fuel for the comedy. The bachelor goes back and forth between being embarrassed and being proudly defensive about coming from a working-class family. He tries very hard to impress his more sophisticated potential in-laws.

The anxious bachelor hopes to get the parents’ approval because he wants to propose marriage to his girlfriend. Several wacky incidents then ensue involving the family playing competitive games with each other; pet animals that are liked or disliked by people at this gathering; and physical mishaps that cause tension and embarrassment. “Meet the Parents” and “About My Father” both have the girlfriend’s annoying siblings make the bachelor uncomfortable.

In “About My Father,” you can do a countdown to a lot of the predictable comedy clichés that have been in dozens of other movies. There’s even a “race against time” scene of someone trying catch up to someone else who’s about to leave on an airplane. The main plot difference between the two movies is that in “About My Father,” the bachelor brings his father along for this family visit. As expected in a formulaic comedy such as “About My Father,” this dad is an outspoken loose cannon who will clash with the pretentious and snobby family who’s hosting this gathering.

“About My Father” has somewhat irritating voiceover narration from the character of Sebastian throughout the movie. In the beginning of the film, Sebastian says that his family is originally from the Italian region of Sicily and has a very strong work ethic. His father Salvo (played by De Niro) immigrated from Sicily and comes from “a long line of Sicilian hairstylists.” Even though Salvo is well past retirement age, he still works in his own hair salon, where his customers (at least those shown in the movie) are middle-aged women who laugh at his unfunny jokes.

Sebastian (who has no siblings) is a first-generation Italian American. Sebastian’s mother is talked about but never shown in any flashbacks. Near the beginning of the movie, it’s mentioned that Sebastian’s mother has been dead for about a year. Sebastian and Salvo have had a very close father-son relationship since Sebastian was a child. And now that Salvo is a widower, Sebastian feels obligated to stay close to his lonely father. Salvo and Sebastian live together.

Salvo and Sebastian’s relationship is a weird mix of co-dependent and macho. On the one hand, Salvo acts like Sebastian is being a disloyal son for having a life outside of being Salvo’s closest friend. (And to be clear: Salvo really has no other friends.) On the other hand, Salvo believes that certain things make men look like “sissies” and “wimps,” such as crying, or father and sons hugging each other.

Sebastian and Salvo have a ritual of spraying cologne on themselves before they go to sleep. It’s supposed to be one of the funny “gags” in the movie, but it just falls flat. Sebastian says in a voiceover: “At bedtime, our room smelled like an Uber [car] in Las Vegas.” Get used to this type of dreadful joke in “About My Father,” because the movie is full of these unfunny comments.

Sebastian is in a loving relationship with his cheerful and perky girlfriend Eleanor “Ellie” Collins (played by Leslie Bibb), who comes from a wealthy family in Virginia. Ellie’s ancestors were among the English settlers who came over to the future United States on the historic Mayflower voyage of 1620. Ellie is an artist whose specialty is in painting abstract art. An early scene in “About My Father” shows Ellie and Sebastian at a gallery exhibit for Ellie’s art. Sebastian and Ellie joke that one of her paintings looks like it could be a vagina, except when the painting is turned horizontally. That’s what’s supposed to pass as “comedy” in this lackluster film.

In the voiceover narration, Sebastian describes Ellie as his “complete opposite” and his “dream woman.” Sebastian also mentions that Ellie introduced him to things such as sunlight coming into bedroom windows, daytime naps, avocado facials and smiling. There’s even a montage in the movie showing Sebastian grimacing, as he “trains” himself to smile more. Viewers will be grimacing for different reasons, as this movie strains to come up with funny lines of dialogue.

Ellie invites Sebastian to meet her family in Virginia, for a Fourth of July holiday weekend. (“About My Father” was actually filmed in Louisiana and Alabama.) Sebastian think this visit is a great idea, until Salvo starts whining about how the trip would mean that Salvo will be left home alone. Salvo also doesn’t think that Sebastian will fit in well with Ellie’s family. Sebastian tells Ellie he won’t go on the trip because he doesn’t want to leave Salvo at home alone, but then Ellie says that Salvo is invited too.

However, Sebastian doesn’t want Salvo to meet Ellie’s family, because Sebastian is sure that Salvo will be a complete embarrassment. Sebastian wants to propose to Ellie with the engagement ring that was owned by Salvo’s deceased mother. Salvo won’t give Sebastian this ring unless Salvo meets and approves of Ellie’s family.

After much hemming and hawing back and forth, Salvo ends up going on the trip with Sebastian and Ellie to the Collins family estate. They take a private plane to a private air strip, where they are greeted by Ellie’s spoiled, obnoxious and hard-partying older brother Williams Collins XIII (played by Anders Holm), whose nickname is Lucky. Sebastian, Salvo and Ellie then go in a helicopter piloted by Lucky to the vast summer home owned by the Collins family. Predictably, one of the helicopter passengers (Sebastian) gets airsick.

At the Collins family estate, Salvo and Sebastian meet Ellie’s parents and younger brother. Ellie’s father William Collins XII (played by David Rasche), whose nickname is Bill, is a luxury hotel mogul in charge of the family’s Collins Hotel Group empire. Bill is friendly in an elitist way. He loves to name drop and brag about high-priced items that he’s bought, while trying (and failing) to look humble.

Ellie’s mother Tigger Collins (played by Kim Cattrall) is a hard-driving and prickly U.S. senator who is used to getting her way. Ellie has warned Sebastian that Tigger will be much harder to please than Bill. Tigger is essentially the type of character that De Niro played in “Meet the Parents”: a domineering authority figure who intimidates the visitors.

Ellie’s younger brother Doug (played by Brett Dier) is the family’s spaced-out weirdo, who walks around dressed like a hippie cult member. Doug rambles about things that he thinks are “enlightening,” such as chakras, cleansing the energy in a room, and how a certain organic food affects his bowel movements. Doug’s family members treat him like a harmless eccentric.

Lucky works in the family’s hotel business. Doug doesn’t seem to work at all. Out of all three siblings, Ellie is clearly the favorite child of their parents, who treat Ellie like a pampered princess. When she’s around her parents, Ellie seems to revert back to acting like a teenager, which should be a “red flag” warning sign for someone who’s in a romance with her. However, immature Sebastian has got enough family issues of his own, and he gets very caught up in trying to impress Ellie’s parents.

The Collins family has peacocks that Ellie says are the family mascots. These peacocks walk around the property wherever they want, mostly outside. Salvo dislikes peacocks and says that they are bad luck. You know where this is going, of course. In “Meet the Parents,” the family pet that caused conflicts was a cat, which was adored by the patriarch but disliked by the visiting bachelor.

“About My Father” has mostly unremarkable acting by cast members trying very hard to be funny when saying cringeworthy lines and depicting even more cringeworthy scenarios. Cattrall fares the best in some of the slapstick comedy, while De Niro is just going through the motions in rehashing the same persona he does in nearly all of his comedies since “Meet the Parents.”

Maniscalco became famous as a stand-up comedian, but he can’t carry this comedy film with the leading-man qualities required for this role. His smirking Sebastian character is both hollow and dull, reduced to nothing but idiotic quips and hammy facial expressions. The direction and writing for “About My Father” look very outdated, like a 1990s movie that was made for a third-tier cable TV network.

“About My Father” might elicit a few chuckles from viewers. A scene that shows a brief flash of mildly amusing banter is when Sebastian and Salvo privately rant to each other about how pompous Tigger and Bill are about their wealth. But watching this disappointing movie dud is like being stuck in a room full of comedians using other people’s well-known and tired jokes, while the comedians try desperately to convince the audience that what they’re watching is fresh and original.

Lionsgate released “About My Father” in U.S. cinemas on May 26, 2023.

Review: ‘The Good House,’ starring Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline

December 28, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver in “The Good House” (Photo by Michael Tompkins/Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions)

“The Good House”

Directed by Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional town of Wendover, Massachusetts, the comedy/drama film “The Good House” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A real-estate agent, who is an alcoholic with big financial problems, tries to salvage her business around the same time that she rekindles a romance with a former high-school classmate who is almost her complete opposite. 

Culture Audience: “The Good House” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Sigourney Weaver and movies about middle-aged people trying to improve their lives but sometimes stumble in the process.

Morena Baccarin and Sigourney Weaver in “The Good House” (Photo by Michael Tompkins/Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions)

“The Good House” is neither terrible nor outstanding but might be appealing to viewers who are interested in seeing emotionally authentic movies about middle-aged people dealing with personal problems. Sigourney Weaver’s feisty performance as an alcoholic real-estate agent is the main reason to watch this uneven dramedy. The movie’s storyline about seeking a redemptive comeback is handled better than the movie’s storyline about finding love.

Husband-and-wife filmmakers Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky directed “The Good House” and co-wrote the adapted screenplay with Thomas Bezucha. “The Good House” is based on Ann Leary’s 2013 book of the same name. After having its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, “The Good House” screened at the 2022 Provincetown International Film Festival in Massachusetts and the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

“The Good House” is of those movies where the protagonist not only does voiceover narration but also looks at the camera to talk directly to viewers. If you have tolerance for this type of presentation in a movie that plays it safe overall with a talented group of cast members, then “The Good House” is worth watching. The dialogue is often sharp and witty, even though some of the plot developments are stale and predictable.

The protagonist of “The Good House” is outspoken and sassy Hildy Good (played by Weaver), who has lived in the fictional town of Wendover, Massachusetts, her entire life. As Hildy says proudly in a voiceover near the beginning of the movie: “My family has lived in Wendover for almost 300 years.” (“The Good House” was actually filmed in Nova Scotia, Canada.)

Hildy, who is divorced with two adult daughters, comes from a working-class background (her father was a butcher), but she became a successful real-estate agent. She is currently an independent realtor with her own small business called Good Realty, where she has one employee: a ditzy assistant named Kendall, who is taking a gap year before she goes to college. Hildy lives with two beloved female dogs: a Papillon and a Border Collie, which are her constant companions.

Most of Hildy’s clients are wealthy residents of Massachusetts’ North Shore. During a showing of a house to married potential buyers Lisa Sanderson (played by Holly Chou) and Rob Sanderson (played by Anthony Estrella), Hildy comments, “We will find you the right house. Buying a house that is out of reach is a recipe for misery.”

Hildy then turns to the camera and says, “I should know. I bought a house I could almost afford. And if everything had gone according to plan, I’d be fine.” Hildy also describes herself as a self-made woman who “worked her way through UMass [the University of Massachusetts], and I’m the top broker on the North Shore. Or at least I was until …”

Lately, Hildy has been dealing with some major setbacks that have negatively affected her business. For starters, she’s an alcoholic who is in deep denial about needing treatment for this disease. Secondly, she’s getting stiff competition from realtor Wendy Heatherton (played by Kathryn Erbe), who used to work for Hildy, “before raiding my Rolodex and stealing all of my clients,” according to Hildy. Third, Hildy has increasing debts, due to not being to make as much money as she used to make, in addition to helping out her adult daughters financially and paying alimony to her ex-husband.

Hildy’s elder daughter Tess (played by Rebecca Henderson) lives In Beverly, Massachusetts, with her husband Michael (played by Sebastien Labelle) and their toddler daughter Lottie. Hildy’s younger daughter Emily (played by Molly Brown) is a bachelorette and an artist who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and has a roommate, but Emily gets help from Hildy to pay the rent and other bills. Hildy is hiding her money problems and thinks this is what can put her back on the right financial track: “I need a good year.”

Hildy believes that she’s found some of this financial windfall in a potential sale of a waterfront property owned by Frank Getchell (played by Kevin Kline), who has had the property in his family for years, but he doesn’t want to sell it. He owns a successful maintenance company called Frank Getchell Contracting. Frank, who is a never-married bachelor with no children, has more than enough money to lead a flashy lifestyle, but he lives modestly and is somewhat of a misfit loner in the community.

When Hildy tells Frank that a lawyer from Boston is interested in buying Frank’s waterfront property, Frank rejects the idea of selling it. Hildy tries to get Frank to change his mind by saying: “You’re a businessman, Frank. Don’t you want to make money?” Frank replies, “Not as much as you do. The butcher’s daughter has gone fancy pants.”

Frank and Hildy have a past together: Frank was Hildy’s first love, and they had a short-lived romance during the summer before she went away to college. The relationship didn’t last because their lives went in two different directions: Frank joined the U.S. Army, while Hildy went to the University of Massachusetts. Hildy ended up marrying an affluent college classmate named Scott Good (the father of Tess and Emily), “who introduced me to high thread-count linens and fine wine. I do miss sailing,” Hildy says.

After 20 years of marriage, Scott left Hildy for another man, which is why they got divorced. Hildy is still bitter about this rejection, but it’s later revealed that her divorce isn’t the real reason why she became an alcoholic. Scott (played by David Rasche) is on cordial terms with Hildy, and they sometimes socialize with each other at mutual friends’ events.

Unfortunately, the trailer for “The Good House” already reveals about 70% of the movie’s plot, including Frank and Hildy rekindling their romance. What the trailer doesn’t reveal is a soap opera-type subplot involving two married couples who know Hildy, who finds out a scandalous secret that could affect these couples’ marriages. (The secret is the most obvious one possible.)

The first couple at the center of a potential scandal are Rebecca McAllister (played by Morena Baccarin) and Brian McCallister (played by Kelly AuCoin), who is a workaholic businessman. The other spouses are psychiatrist Peter Newbold (played by Rob Delaney) and Elise Newbold (played by Laurie Hanley), who live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Hildy has known Peter since he was a child. Hildy and her close friend Mamie Lang (played by Beverly D’Angelo) used to babysit Peter when Peter was about 8 years old.

Rebecca is a homemaker who is friendly but has some emotional issues. In an early scene in the movie, when Hildy is showing the Sandersons a house near Rebecca’s home, Hildy is somewhat horrified to see Rebecca gardening in the front yard while wearing a white nightgown and construction shoes. Hildy discreetly says to Hildy, “It’s chilly outside, dear. Do me a favor. Put on a sweater and a hat and some leggings.” Rebecca laughs and replies, “Yes. Sometimes, I get carried away, and I don’t think things through.”

Rebecca’s husband Brian is away from home a lot because of work. And so, a lonely Rebecca befriends Hildy. They end up confiding in each other about a lot of things about their personal lives. Hildy also becomes acquainted with a married couple named Cassie Dwight (played by Georgia Lyman) and Patch Dwight (played by Jimmy LeBlanc), whose 5-year-old son Jake (played by Silas Pereira-Olson) is living with autism.

Even though Hildy lives alone, she has a fairly active social life, which usually includes going to dinner parties. At one of these parties, Hildy divulges that she’s the descendant of Sarah Good, one of the first accused witches of Salem, Massachusetts. And then, Hildy does a psychic reading at the party while the movie’s soundtrack plays Donavan’s “Season of the Witch.”

“The Good House” has scenes that sometimes awkwardly balance the comedy and the drama. This clumsiness is demonstrated the most in how the movie presents Hildy’s alcoholism, which is sometimes reduced to soundbites where she talks to the camera about it with glib jokes. The movie then uses cheap gimmicks such as hallucinations or Hildy stopping in the middle of a conversation to tell “The Good House” viewers what she’s really thinking by saying it out loud.

In one such scene, Hildy is drinking alcohol when she’s alone in her house. She quips, “I never drank alone—before rehab. Scott always said I should stop after my third drink.” Hildy then hallucinates her ex-husband Scott appearing before her to add, “That’s when you start to get out of control.” Hildy says in response, “What are you talking about? That’s when I start to feel in control.”

The trailer for “The Good House” already revealed that Hildy’s loved ones stage an intervention, in an attempt to get her to go to rehab. It’s just another scene where Hildy comes up with one-liners to continue being in denial about how serious her alcoholism is. It’s hinted at but never told in detail that Hildy’s alcoholism has alienated many of her former clients and has given Hildy a reputation for being erratic. Hildy eventually opens up to someone about some painful things from her childhood, but that’s as far as the movie goes in exploring Hildy’s psychology.

Mostly, Hildy is presented as someone who is trying to fool people into thinking that she has her whole life together when her life is actually falling apart. She doesn’t fool Frank though. It’s one of the reasons why their relationship is easy to root for, because he sees her for who she really is and loves her despite her flaws. It’s a case of “opposites attract” because Hildy likes to put on airs to impress people, while Frank is completely down-to-earth.

One of the shortcomings of “The Good House” is that instead of focusing more on the relationship between Hildy and Frank, the movie tends to get distracted by the messy and melodramatic subplot involving Rebecca, Brian, Peter and Elise. Throughout the movie, Hildy has some drunken antics, with a few of these shenanigans having consequences that might serve as a wake-up call for Hildy to get professional help for her problems.

Weaver doesn’t disappoint in giving a very watchable performance of this emotionally damaged character. The supporting cast members are also up to the task in playing their roles. However, Hildy’s often-prickly personality is written in the movie as overshadowing all the other characters. Sometimes this character dominance is a benefit to “The Good House,” and sometimes it’s a detriment. “The Good House” doesn’t always succeed in having a consistent tone, but the story has enough realistic portrayals of adult relationships to make it an appealing story to viewers who are inclined to watch these types of movies.

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions released “The Good House” in select U.S. cinemas on September 30, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on October 18, 2022. “The Good House” was released on Blu-ray and DVD on November 22, 2022.

Review: ‘Paper Spiders,’ starring Lili Taylor, Stefania LaVie Owen, Ian Nelson and Peyton List

May 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Lili Taylor and Stefania LaVie Owen in “Paper Spiders” (Photo courtesy of Entertainment Squad)

“Paper Spiders”

Directed by Inon Shampanier

Culture Representation: Taking place in Syracuse, New York, and briefly in Los Angeles, the dramatic film “Paper Spiders” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A teenager and her widowed mother have conflicts because of the mother’s mental illness.

Culture Audience: “Paper Spiders” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching well-acted dramas about mother-daughter relationships and how mental illness can affect people.

Ian Nelson and Stefania LaVie Owen in “Paper Spiders” (Photo courtesy of Entertainment Squad)

Much like the mother-daughter relationship that’s at the center of the movie, “Paper Spiders” takes viewers on an emotional roller coaster ride that can be gripping, unpredictable and harrowing—sometimes all at once. It’s a compelling drama about how mental illness, if left untreated, can poison relationships directly and indirectly. And it’s an authentic portrayal of the denials and dilemmas that loved ones of mentally ill people go through in seeking treatment for a mentally ill person who doesn’t want to get any professional help.

People who don’t know anything about “Paper Spiders” might think it’s just another movie about a teenage girl who has conflicts with her mother over dating or wanting to be more independent. It’s not that type of movie. In “Paper Spiders,” the teenage daughter is the one who increasingly becomes the more responsible, emotionally mature person in the close mother-daughter relationship that starts to unravel because of the mother’s mental illness.

“Paper Spiders” was directed by Inon Shampanier, who wrote the movie’s screenplay with his wife Natalie Shampanier, who works as a therapist. The film is inspired by Natalie’s real-life experiences with having a mother with persecutory delusional disorder—a mental illness in which a person has paranoid delusions about being targeted for attacks and harassment. Although the film’s prom night sequence has some heavy melodramatics that look very fabricated for a movie, “Paper Spider” benefits greatly from exemplary performances from the cast members.

Lili Taylor and Stefania LaVie Owen are the standouts as widow Dawn Leedy and her daughter Melanie Leedy, who go through a series of ups and downs that test not only their love for each other but also their well-beings as individuals. When this story begins, Dawn’s husband/Melanie’s father Charles Leedy has been dead for about two years. (He had a heart attack while in a swimming pool.) But during the course of the story, it’s revealed that Dawn has been struggling with her mental health for years before her husband died.

The movie’s opening scene shows Dawn and Melanie having a close bonding experience, as they’re on a guided tour of the University of Southern California (USC) campus in Los Angeles. Melanie, who is an only child, is in her last year of high school and is deciding which university she will be attending after she graduates from high school. Because she’s an excellent student, Melanie has applied to get a full scholarship to USC, which seems to be her first-choice university. USC also happens to be Charles Leedy’s alma mater.

Dawn and Melanie live in Syracuse, New York, and Dawn expresses some trepidation about Melanie possibly moving to the other side of the United States to attend college. As they tour the USC campus, Melanie says that she probably won’t get the scholarship. Dawn tells Melanie that it would be much easier if Melanie went to a university that was close to where they live in New York.

Dawn says half-jokingly, “Why did I push you to get straight A’s? If I only knew I was pushing you straght out the door.” Melanie replies, “It’s just college, Mom.” Dawn then says, “What am I going to do when you’re gone?” Melanie responds, “I’m not dying.”

On the surface, their banter seems like a typical mother worrying about having “empty nest” syndrome and a daughter showing mild exasperation over her mother’s worries. But there’s a lot of truth in Dawn’s fear of Melanie “abandoning” Dawn to start her own life. For now, things seem to be going well in their relationship. Melanie is an empathetic and respectful person who’s more likely than not to help someone who’s in need.

But the cracks start to show in Dawn’s state of mind when she and Melanie get home from their USC trip. They live in a two-story house on a quiet street. Dawn fears and despises a middle-aged neighbor on their street named Brody Jensen (played by James W. Meagher), but he’s not a figment of Dawn’s imagination. Brody has a wife (played by Jennifer Cody) and a young daughter, who are briefly seen in the movie. And as far as Dawn is concerned, Brody is the neighbor from hell.

As soon as Dawn and Melanie are at home, Dawn starts ranting about all the things that Brody has been doing to do harass Dawn. First, Dawn says that Brody rammed his car into a tree on Dawn’s front yard and left a huge dent in the tree. She goes over to his house to confront him about it. And when Dawn comes back, she’s even more infuriated because she tells Melanie that Brody told her to “fuck off.” Viewers never see this encounter, which is the first clue that Brody’s “persecution” of Dawn could be something she’s hallucinating.

On another day, Dawn and Melanie are at home, when they both hear the sound of a small object hitting a front window of their house. Dawn immediately says that it’s Brody throwing rocks. Melanie thinks it’s just an acorn that fell from a nearby tree. And sure enough, when Melanie looks outside the window, there’s nothing there but some acorns (and no rocks) on the ground.

One of the questions that viewers might have when watching “Paper Spiders” is, “How come Melanie, who’s obviously very intelligent, didn’t notice all these signs of mental illness before?” It’s mentioned in the movie that Dawn’s mental deterioration got worse after Dawn’s husband died, possibly because of Dawn’s grief and loneliness. It’s also hinted that Dawn’s paranoid delusions escalated partially because of her fear of living alone when Melanie goes away to college.

There are no flashbacks of what Melanie’s father was like when he was alive. However, based on how Melanie’s father is described by people in the movie, there’s some nuanced subtext that Melanie’s father probably protected Melanie from a lot of unpleasant details about Dawn’s mental illness. And because Melanie is the type of student to be preoccupied with school, she might not have been as attuned to Dawn’s problems when her father was still alive.

But now that Melanie and Dawn are the only two people in the house, these problems have become impossible to ignore. Dawn soon becomes convinced that Brody is trying to break into the house and assault her and Melanie when they’re asleep. After one such alleged “attempted break-in,” where Dawn woke Melanie up in a panic, Dawn calls the police and hystericaly demands that the police arrest Brody.

However, nothing happens to Brody because he and his wife say that he was home the entire time that Dawn accused him of trespassing, and there’s no proof that there was a break-in or that Brody was ever on Dawn’s property. On another day, Dawn begins to hear noises on the roof and immediately thinks that Brody is sneaking around on top of the house. She enlists Melanie to help her catch Brody in the act, so that they have enough “proof” to get him arrested.

At first, Melanie gives Dawn the benefit of the doubt. But she soon figures out that Dawn is imagining all of these harassment incidents. Dawn even has a restraining order against Brody. The tipping point for Melanie is when Dawn finds a bee in the kitchen, and Dawn insists to Melanie that Brody planted the bee there.

Dawn’s paranoia increases, so she hires a private investigator named Gary (played by Max Casella) to install surveillance equipment inside and outside the house. And Dawn’s mental illness starts to affect her job as a paralegal, when she begs her attorney boss Bill Hoffman (played by David Rasche), who owns a small law firm, to represent her in the lawsuit that she wants to file against Brody.

An increasingly worried Melanie goes to her school’s guidance counselor Mr. Wessler (played Michael Cyril Creighton) more than once for help. He’s not a licensed therapist, and the movie pokes fun at his obvious ineptitude. He makes awkward small talk and is ill-equipped to deal with any student who might come to him about serious mental health issues. As Melanie describes her mother’s disturbing behavior to him, Mr. Wessler doesn’t really know how to respond.

And so, during their first meeting, Mr. Wessler literally has to look up Dawn’s behavior in a psychology textbook that he keeps nearby for reference. And that’s when Melanie first hears that her mother probably has persecutory delusional disorder. Mr. Wessler warns Melanie that he can’t officially diagnose someone he hasn’t met. He advises Melanie to try to ease Dawn’s anxiety by getting Dawn involved in more social activities.

Although the scenes with Mr. Wessler are meant to be satirical or played for a little bit of comic relief, they’re representative of the lack of proper resources that people like Melanie might have to deal with when trying to get help for a mentally ill loved one. When Melanie suggests to Dawn that she speak to a therapist or counselor about Dawn’s problems, Dawn gets very defensive and angry. Dawn doesn’t think that anything is mentally wrong with her, and she accuses Melanie of not being on her side.

How can you convince someone to get help for a mental illness if that person denies that there’s even a mental health problem? That’s the crux of much of the drama in “Paper Spiders,” whose title comes from spider figures made from paper cups that are seen toward the end of the film. Viewers will see in which context these paper spiders were made.

Melanie’s closest friend at school is a flirtatious extrovert named Lacy (played by Peyton List), who isn’t much help when it comes to Melanie’s biggest problems. Lacy is aware that Dawn is “eccentric,” but she doesn’t know that Dawn has been having paranoid delusions. And maybe Melanie hasn’t told Lacy because Melanie knows that Lacy’s top priority in life is hooking up with boys.

While all of this intense family drama is going on in Melanie’s life, Melanie unexpectedly finds possible love with a rebellious classmate named Daniel (played by Ian Nelson), who pursues her relentlessly until she agrees to go out on a date with him. Daniel is the type of guy who likes to dress all in black and has already been to rehab for alcoholism. It’s a classic case of a “bad boy/good girl” coupling, but in this movie, it isn’t too cliché.

As Melanie and Daniel slowly get to know one another, he shows a vulnerable side underneath his cocky exterior. Daniel comes from a family that provides him with material wealth but not enough emotional support. Daniel opens up to Melanie about how his mother is a neglectful alcoholic, and his workaholic father is rarely home and thinks that he can buy Daniel’s love with gifts.

Melanie knows that Daniel is emotionally damaged, but she doesn’t do the stereotypical thing of trying to “fix” or “tame” him. Instead, she tries to understand him and help him in a non-judgmental way. Even though he’s been to rehab, Daniel still drinks alcohol, and Melanie doesn’t try to stop him. However, she does express concern that his idea of drinking “in moderation” won’t work for him because he’s been to rehab for alcohol addiction. Viewers will find out how far this relationship goes, considering all the other things that Melanie is dealing with in her life.

“Paper Spiders” isn’t all gloom and doom. Before Dawn goes on a downward spiral, Melanie signed her up on an online dating site and matched her with a nice-guy engineer named Howard (played by Tom Papa), a divorcé whose wife left him for their financial advisor after 21 years of marriage. The movie has a “cutesy” moment when Dawn’s first date with Howard is on the same night as Melanie’s first date with Daniel. Howard and Daniel both end up arriving at Dawn and Melanie’s home at the same time.

The movie also shows some nice moments of Dawn and Melanie spending time together, such as on the plane back from Los Angeles, when they do work on a crossword puzzle together. And there’s another pleasanatly authentic scene of Melanie and Dawn shopping for clothes together in anticipation for their dates with Daniel and Howard. In another scene, Dawn generously gives her prom dress (which doesn’t look outdated) to Melanie for Melanie’s own prom.

The night of Melanie’s prom is a pivotal point in the story, but it’s also when the movie goes a little over-the-top in looking like a teen soap opera. However, what happens after the prom are some of the harsh adult realities that Melanie has to face, as she has to make difficult decisions about her future. In some ways, Melanie wants her independence and knows that there’s a limit to how much she can help her mother. In other ways, Melanie knows that because she’s the only family that Dawn has in the world, how Melanie handles the situation could deeply affect the future for herself and her mother.

What “Paper Spiders” does so well is present these real-life issues with a rare balance of rawness and sensitivity—and not in a preachy or trite way. What Melanie decides to do might not work for all people or all families. However, the movie shows, with a great deal of accuracy, the sense of isolation, shame and confusion that someone in Melanie’s situation faces when a loved one seems to become a different person while under the grip of mental illness. Thanks to Taylor’s and Owen’s memorable and meaningful performances, “Paper Spiders” is a movie that brings humane depth to these problems that can’t easily be solved by looking them up in a psychology book.

Entertainment Squad released “Paper Spiders” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 7, 2021. The movie’s DVD release date is on June 22, 2021.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Swallow’

May 1, 2019

by Carla Hay

Haley Bennett in "Swallow"
Haley Bennett in “Swallow” (Photo by Katelin Arizmendi)


Directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

People familiar with reality TV might know about the TLC series “My Strange Addiction,” which was on the air from 2010 to 2015. Every episode documented people with unusual compulsions and obsessions, and a great deal of these episodes featured someone addicted to eating non-food objects. That eating disorder is called pica. The dramatic film “Swallow” is a disturbing fictional look at a young woman who has that disorder.

In “Swallow” (written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis), Haley Bennett plays a housewife named Hunter, who seems to have it all: a wealthy and handsome husband who dotes on her, a baby on the way (her first child), and a beautiful home that she can decorate any way she pleases. But underneath her meek and soft-spoken surface, Hunter is a very disturbed person, and her husband Richie (played by Austin Stowell) is a control-freak perfectionist who treats her like a trophy.

Richie is the type of controlling spouse who gets angry at Hunter because she didn’t iron a silk tie the way he wanted it ironed. Hunter is also living a fairly isolated existence. She seems to have no friends of her own because the people with whom she and Richie socialize are Richie’s friends. Image-obsessed Richie wants the world to think he has a perfect marriage.

It’s widely known that people who develop eating disorders do so because they don’t feel in control of their lives, and their eating habit is their way of trying to feel in control. Hunter’s descent into self-harm begins when she reads a book called “A Talent for Joy” by Bing Roden. (The book and author have been fabricated for this movie.) The book advises readers to try new and adventurous things.

We get the first hint that something is off with Hunter when she’s having dinner at a fancy restaurant with Richie and his snooty parents, Katherine (played by Elizabeth Marvel) and Michael (played by David Rasche), who treat their son like a prince and treat Hunter like a minor inconvenience. However, they seem to be happy that pregnant Hunter will produce an heir for their family. At the dinner, Hunter seems to get excited, perhaps sexually aroused, when she begins chewing on something uncomfortable—ice.

During the course of the movie, we find out that Richie’s parents don’t really approve of the marriage because they think he could have married someone from a better socioeconomic class. Hunter used to work as some sort of clothing retail clerk before she married Richie—something that Katherine sniffs about in hushed tones when she brings up Hunter’s past.

Meanwhile, eating that ice triggers Hunter into consuming several objects that might be too disturbing for some people to see it portrayed on screen. (There were a few people who walked out of the screening I attended, apparently because the idea of a pregnant woman doing this was just too much for them to handle.) The objects that Hunter swallows include a marble, a tack, a battery, paper, a thimble, a button, dirt and a safety pin. The fact that she’s harming her unborn child is of little concern to her, because she apparently doesn’t want to be pregnant.

It’s no surprise that Hunter ends up in the emergency room, where her secret is exposed. Richie and his parents are naturally alarmed and furious. Because she is pregnant, they’re going to do whatever it takes to get her to stop harming herself. They immediately put Hunter into therapy, where she tells her therapist Alice (played by Zabryna Guevara) why she likes to swallow inedible objects: “I like the texture in my mouth. It makes me feel in control.”

And where is Hunter’s biological family in this crisis? That’s an answer the movie reveals but it’s best not to include that spoiler information in this review. However, it is enough to say that her family background has a lot to do with her eating disorder. Even though Hunter promises Richie that she’ll stop, she can’t get rid of her eating disorder that easily. Richie and his parents then take extreme measures to get control of Hunter’s disturbing obsession, which results in Hunter confronting her past.

“Swallow” has a very small cast, which is a reflection of how small and insular Hunter’s world is. In her portrayal of this troubled soul, actress Bennett does a chilling but impressive performance as someone who seems mild-mannered on the outside but has raging self-hatred on the inside. Hunter’s repressed desperation seems to seep through her pores and linger in the air, even in moments of silence.

“Swallow” writer/director Mirabella-Davis says that the Hunter character was inspired by his real-life grandmother Edith, who was afflicted with pica. Like Hunter, Edith was a housewife who was stuck in a miserable marriage, according to Mirabella-Davis. The director also consulted with Dr. Rachel Bryant-Waugh, a leading psychology expert on pica. All of that background information makes a difference, because the movie has a level of authenticity that will make people very uncomfortable and might leave some haunting memories.

 UPDATE: IFC Films will release “Swallow” in New York City and Los Angeles and on VOD on March 6, 2020. The movie’s theatrical release expands to more U.S. cities on March 13, 2020.

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