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‘Paper Spiders’ review: Tender look a mental illness through a young adult lens

Paper Spiders is a different type of coming of age film. Melanie (Stefania LaVie Owen) is a college bound seventeen year old. Her mother Dawn (Lili Taylor) seems to have the anxiety that is common from a parent whose child is about to leave home for the first time. It soon becomes evident, that this more than just a case of empty nest syndrome. 

The film hinges on the relationship between Melanie and Dawn. This is highlighted early on during a return from a visit to USC. The two share a bond that is breezily portrayed yet comes across clearly. This gives Paper Spiders a natural feel that balances the emotional heft. It also sets up how this will be a story revolving around the two characters. 

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The script treats with mental illness with sensitivity. Dawn is not written to be pitied nor is Paper Spiders trying to coerce tears. The story looks at a loved one losing touch with reality through the eyes of a teenager. It gives the movie a tender – and sometimes frightening- feel. There is a realism that is refreshing even in the most difficult moments.

Owen is fantastic as Melanie. Paper Spiders looks at mental illness through the point of view of a young adult. Naturally, there are the reactions that come across due to a lack of life experience. More poignant is the maturity in which she faces what her mother is going through. Her once structured life is now crumbling. Melanie’s attempts to put off making a final decision are what many adults do in their daily lives.

The film is less successful when dealing with the expected coming of age moments. There is an incident involving marijuana which seems out of place. Having Melanie’s friends also have compulsive behaviors of their own also leans towards tween soap opera territory. It is still well written, it just comes off as over the top in a movie that is otherwise down to earth. 

Paper Spiders does an excellent job of handling humor. This can be very difficult in a movie about mental illness. There is the danger of mockery or diminishing the importance. Here it adds levity to its heavy story without taking away from its message. The characters and story will stay with anyone who watches it.

Paper Spiders opens nationwide May 7

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