Combing the 100% Club: ‘Paper Spiders’ depicts the rugged reality of mental illness

April 21, 2022, 10:28 p.m.

Welcome to Combing the 100% Club. In this column, I’ll be reviewing and recommending lesser known members of Rotten Tomatoes100% Club — the site’s trove of films with perfect Tomatometer scores. Follow along to find out why critics love these films, and why you might love them, too.

“Paper Spiders” premiered at the 2020 Boston Film Festival, earning top prizes for Best Film, Best Actress (Lili Taylor), Best Screenplay and Best Ensemble Cast. It was subsequently released to the public in May 2021, a date co-screenwriters Inon and Natalie Shampanier hand-picked to commemorate Mother’s Day and Mental Health Awareness Month. Not only is “Paper Spiders” an exceptionally deserving member of the 100% Club, exploring the complexity of motherhood and the brutal everyday realities of mental illness, but it is also featured on the Rotten Tomatoes Top 10 Best Films of 2021 list

The film begins as a standard coming-of-age film anchored by a tumultuous mother-daughter relationship, reminiscent of Greta Gerwig’s 2017 smash hit “Lady Bird.” High-school senior and valedictorian-elect Melanie (Stefania LaVie Owen) dreams of attending the University of Southern California (USC), her late father’s alma mater, while her mother Dawn (Lili Taylor) grows increasingly anxious about having an empty nest. Like many mothers and daughters, these two are built-in best friends who banter at the dining table and finish each other’s sentences; Dawn is amusingly eccentric, and Melanie is endearingly gentle. 

The film significantly departs from convention, though, when Dawn’s eccentricity is revealed as a product of her hitherto dormant persecutory delusional disorder — an illness that screenwriter Natalie watched her own mother battle. Those who are afflicted with this disorder are disconnected from the real world, plagued with the debilitating paranoia that others seek to harm them.

Dawn’s particular paranoia, exacerbated by her enduring grief over her husband — who died unexpectedly after suffering a heart attack in the family pool — manifests as a deep conviction that her innocuous next-door neighbor Brody is out to get her. Her ill will toward him begins when he accidentally drives into her late husband’s front-yard tree. Though the damage to the tree is minimal, this accident effectively splinters Dawn’s sense of reality and, as a consequence, her relationship with Melanie. When a pine cone falls onto the roof, Dawn insists it is Brody walking atop it; when she loses her job, she claims he sabotaged her; when Melanie frustratedly tries to convince her that Brody’s meddling is a figment of her imagination, she yells hysterically, “See, he’s turning us against each other!” Poignant moments like these represent the malignant nature of Dawn’s mental illness — left untreated, it eats away at her and her emotional support systems. 

Dawn is obviously paranoid — in a physical and emotional state of frenzy for most of the film —  but the Shampaniers’ screenplay and Taylor’s performance also destabilize the boundary between Dawn’s imagination and the film’s diegetic reality, leaving room for her paranoia to instead be seen as valid fear. Once during the film, we even think we hear Brody’s feet on the roof. Because we never actually see Brody and Dawn interact, our estimations of Dawn’s credibility are only as good as Melanie’s. This harrowing instability is reflected sonically in composer Ariel Blumenthal’s score — which is burdened by minor piano chords — and visually in director Inon’s ever-shifting camera position. Ultimately, these cinematic techniques enable viewers to empathize with Dawn’s anxiety in an embodied way.

Taylor’s and Owen’s captivating performances also allow us to simultaneously intuit Dawn’s hyperfixation and Melanie’s aggravation. Inspired by her work as a marriage and family therapist, Natalie sought to show the brutal realities of persecutory delusional disorder without dehumanizing Dawn as a character. Taylor’s heart-wrenching delivery of lines like, “Melanie, I don’t even know what you’re saying,” and, “You abandoned me,” support Natalie’s aim by showing just how vulnerable Dawn is — despite her tendency to lashing out at Melanie and others. Still, we are disappointed time and again by Dawn’s hostility toward Melanie, who only hopes to help her mother. When Dawn’s offenses evolve from leaving Melanie home alone to throwing out her computer and disrupting her graduation ceremony, we feel Melanie harden — her pity for her mother turns to ire. 

The film ultimately hinges upon this dysfunctional relationship between Dawn and Melanie. Dawn’s illness renders her incapable of taking care of herself or her daughter, so Melanie undergoes parentification: a child’s forced adoption of the role of an adult, and a phenomenon recently well-explored in the Netflix series “Maid.” Like the daughter-protagonist in “Maid,” Melanie parents her mother: she takes her dress shopping, cooks her food and seeks resources for her via a hilariously inept school counselor (delightfully portrayed by Michael Cyril Creighton).

Melanie’s coming-of-age is suspended by her responsibility for her mother, which she holds without a shred of resentment, though it wreaks havoc on her personal ambitions. She also replicates her parentified role in her relationships with her long-time best friend Lacy (Peyton List), who speaks exclusively about her interest in the teenage trademark trio of sex, drugs and alcohol, and her short-lived boyfriend Daniel, who is the standard fresh-out-of-rehab, absent-father “bad boy.” With these two, Melanie often acts as therapist rather than best friend or girlfriend. 

Lacy and Daniel are irritatingly flat-sided characters, but they serve their purpose as reminders of Melanie’s relentless commitment to taking care of everyone except herself. While Melanie is eventually able to confront Daniel, telling him, “You need help. I can’t fix you. I can’t fix anyone,” she cannot create the same boundaries with her mother. Instead, Melanie gives up USC to stay at home with Dawn, and the film ends with the two of them reclining by their house pool, able to reclaim this site of deep trauma together. The screenplay delivers a happy ending enabled by Melanie’s sacrifice, arguing that this is what being family means: unconditional devotion, even when it can be self-destructive, even when those you love cannot and do not love you back.

Though Dawn repeatedly disowns, rejects and humiliates Melanie in defense of her delusions, making it easy to detest her, “Paper Spiders” challenges us to remember that Dawn did not choose her mental illness any more than Melanie’s father chose to have a heart attack. It asks us to extend grace to those who do not choose to suffer, even when they make their loved ones suffer in turn, and that is its beautifully broken truth.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Malia Mendez ’22 is the Vol. 260 Managing Editor of Arts & Life at The Stanford Daily. She is majoring in English with a concentration in Creative Writing, Prose track. Talk to her about Modernist poetry, ecofeminism or coming-of-age films at mmendez 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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