When the signs first begin to appear, they are seemingly trivial. The new family next door reverses their moving truck into Dawn’s (Lili Taylor) tree, causing the woman to angrily shout through the window. Her daughter, Melanie (Stefania LaVie Owen), shrugs the whole thing off as being nothing but a small neighbourly conflict. This is, however, far from it. What began as an ordinary disagreement soon evolves into a downward spiral of paranoia as Dawn accuses her neighbour, Brodie, of stalking and threatening her.
Dawn walks through the house with ears open wide, listening to noises no one else can hear. She firmly believes Brodie is on her roof, planting a range of surveillance equipment so he can better track the two women inside. When Dawn has a headache while out on a date, she attributes it to Brodie’s skills as an engineer: he had concocted a machine to interfere with her thoughts. The morning after, she hires a private investigator and wires the whole house from top to bottom, cameras covering each corner of every room. Nothing Melanie says can steer Dawn from her path. No evidence can convince the woman that her neighbour isn’t out to get her.
Desperate for help, Melanie reaches out to the school’s counsellor, who – despite his lack of experience – points out to the most likely diagnosis: delusional disorder. “Challenging their reality, because they don’t believe they have a problem, it almost always results in hostility and rage”, he says. Having lost her husband to a sudden heart attack a couple of years prior, Dawn saw her life turned upside down, the grief and the anxiety never fully processed. When Melanie begins to plan her future and applying to far away colleges, it all becomes too much.
Paper Spiders is earnest in its approach to how devastating mental illness can be, not only for the people suffering from it, but for those who surround them. Enveloped in paranoia, Dawn can’t grasp the wounds she is cutting through her daughter. Her rage is often prompted by a primal motherly instinct to protect Melanie from imminent harm, but, in a twisted sense, the more she tries to shelter her daughter from danger, the further she pushes her away. Melanie desperately grasps at straws, hopelessly trying to pull her mother away from the void she is rapidly sinking into.
After each failed attempt, the teenager is engulfed by an overwhelming sense of impotence. Seeking numbness, Melanie falls into the arms of rebellious Dan (Ian Nelson), a schoolmate fresh out of rehab for alcoholism. This romance showcases how bifurcated Melanie’s life has become: at school, she is blossoming – not only is she the best in class and heading for a full scholarship at her dream university, but she now has a heartthrob in her arms. At home, it is all but a fairytale as she shifts from daughter to responsible adult once her mother completely loses touch with reality.
It is heartbreaking to see the young woman, who had just allowed herself to taste some joy after slowly lifting the veil of grief she felt for her father, be once again trapped by the feeling of loss. This time, Melanie grieves someone who is there, dissolving right in front of her. Mere weeks before Dawn finds herself hysterically shouting at police officers, the duo was sharing a Lady Bird-esque mother and daughter afternoon at a discount clothing shop before date night, excitingly sharing their fears and expectations. None of the two could imagine then the hardships that would follow.
Paper Spiders breaks no moulds nor reinvents the wheel. Nonetheless, there is a permeating sense of honesty throughout that ultimately overpowers the often saccharine script. In LaVie Owen’s raw performance as Melanie lies the film’s biggest strength, the young actress a lovely surprise in a film that was clearly written for veteran Lili Taylor to shine.
“It’s easy to blame people who are ill for the way they are. She didn’t choose mental illness anymore than a person chooses cancer or diabetes,” a nurse tells Melanie as she sits tired by her mother’s hospital room, pondering on her next steps. When it manages to steer clear of the saccharine, Paper Spiders brings to the fore an important conversation and it asks an even more important question: what does one do when faced with the crushing pain of seeing a loved one be consumed by mental illness? Many are the possible answers, none of them right. All of them right.
PAPER SPIDERS opened in theatres and VOD platforms on May 7 2021, which was Mother’s Day weekend and the start of Mental Health Awareness Month.