Los Angeles, May 15 – This Mental Health Awareness Month, the new film Paper Spiders spares us feel good moments for the sake of providing us with an honest look at paranoia. The film juggles comedy and drama, but never at the expense of properly showing the life-changing severity of its respective disability. It is highly recommended if you are looking for a realistic drama anchored by great performances.
Paper Spiders’ pathos lies in its raw and often unrestrained examination of parent and child relationships. A recent film comparison which effectively explores similar themes would be Greta Grewig’s Lady Bird. However, unlike Lady Bird, Paper Spiders demonstrates the challenges of coming of age while bound by unforeseen obligations at home.
The film is based on the life of co-screenwriter Natalie Shampanier and revolves around a high school girl navigating her final year of high school while she deals with the complexities and struggles of her mother‘s mental health issues. The film was directed and co-written by Inon Shampanier and stars Lili Taylor and Stefanie LaVie Owen.
The film begins while our main character Natalie (played by Owen) is visiting USC as a prospective college to enroll in following her senior year of high school. She is accompanied by her mother Dawn (played by Taylor) who criticizes and challenges every point made by the campus tour guide. While some of Dawn’s concerns and actions may seem encroaching, it is evident from their relationship that Natalie and Dawn are close, especially since the passing of Dawn’s husband. Initially, Dawn’s overbearingness comes across as the actions of a typical doting mother, but as the narrative unfolds Dawn’s actions move from harmless to potentially life-threatening.
While Natalie lives her life as a high school student trying to build a flawless academic resume, back at home Dawn continuously argues and yells with her next-door neighbors. She believes that one of her neighbors is intentionally disrupting her life by throwing rocks at her home or trespassing on her property. There is no evidence to suggest this is the case, yet Dawn firmly believes that she is being persecuted and followed by her unseen neighbor. Natalie’s suspicions regarding her mother’s mental health continue to grow, and through a session with a school psychologist Natalie comes to the conclusion that her mother is having paranoid delusions.
What follows is a series of trying to balance school life with home life, uncovering the boundaries between paternalism and caregiving, and weighing the consequences of potentially leaving behind a loved one who may not be able to take care of themselves. It is through these difficult moral choices that the audience becomes hooked and attached to the characters on screen.
With earnestness and unmitigated wholeheartedness comes the necessity to not gloss over or sugarcoat disabilities in order to avoid discussing the consequences of paranoid delusions. Paper Spiders contains scenes that are difficult to watch. Not because they resemble your typical misrepresentations of disability but rather the opposite.
While authentic casting would have been preferred, given that this story is inspired by the real-life events of screenwriter Natalie Shampanier, many of the events involving paranoid delusions and the struggles of caring for someone with mental health issues are true to life and authentic. Easy answers to difficult questions are not provided, but instead the film presents an honest and occasionally gut-wrenching portrayal of coping and living with mental health issues.
Paper Spiders is available on VOD and in select theaters.
Want to learn more about mental health representation on screen? Join RespectAbility for a virtual conversation on raising awareness and promoting change through authentic mental health representation in media on Thursday May 20.