May 10, 2021
by Carla Hay
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.
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.