“Paper Spiders” opens on a dynamic played out in countless American coming-of-age stories, as bright-eyed high school senior Melanie (Stefania LaVie Owen) and her doting single mother Dawn (Lili Taylor) tour the USC college campus on which the former has her heart set. As Melanie gawps in wonder, Dawn surveys the place with a critical eye, asking neurotic, embarrassing mom questions about campus security and the like: California is, after all, practically a whole country away from their Erie Canal, and she’s not quite ready for her only child to fly that far from the nest. What parent can’t relate? Yet as Inon Shampanier’s heartfelt, honestly acted domestic drama unfolds, this needy mother-daughter bond turns less familiar and more frightening. It’s not the teen’s lack of protection anyone need fear once left to her own devices, but that of her increasingly irrational parent.
For Dawn, it swiftly becomes clear, is not simply your usual worrywart mom. Her fretting over neighborly infractions and noises in the night crosses the boundary from everyday over-anxiety into delusional disorder — previously contained, it seems, but sent into manic overdrive by the imminent threat of being alone. What begins as a wry tale of a maturing family in bittersweet flux spirals unpredictably into a study of living with extreme mental illness, as experienced by both the afflicted and their gradually alienated nearest and dearest.
In doing so, the script, co-written by Shampanier with his wife Natalie, plunges into some nightmarish worst-case scenarios, ratcheting up the discomfort of their characters and audience in tandem. If the film’s flirtations with full-tilt melodrama occasionally strain credibility, a pair of intuitive, thoughtfully inhabited performances pull proceedings back from the edge every time.
It’s a pleasure, in particular, to see the great Taylor — riveting when required to deliver intensity and imbalance in equal proportion — given a leading showcase this testing and generous. She plays Dawn, a good mother still shaken by the untimely death of her husband, with a caring but thin-lipped pragmatism that lends a core of sensible conviction to her progressively outlandish delusions: She’s evidently been right about many things in life, so can she be so wrong about this?
That’s the reasoning, at least, that makes Melanie guardedly sympathetic when Dawn, having recently argued with the man next door over a minor front-yard offense, claims that he’s been stalking and harassing her ever since. But can he really be climbing on their roof to spy on them? Is he really throwing rocks at their window without breaking a single glass? By the time Dawn asserts that he’s using electromagnetic technology to give her migraines, Melanie is forced to conclude that it’s very much all in her head.
Wisely, the Shampaniers resist wrongfooting viewers with twisty psychodrama flourishes: Though Zach Kuperstein’s handsome lensing is heavy on forbiddingly underlit interiors and twilight shadow, the throat-tightening horror here emerges more prosaically, from a girl’s gradual realization that her mother’s perception of reality is dangerously off-kilter, and that she has no idea how to help.
It’s a curious blank space in the script that Melanie appears to have no relatives or family friends whatsoever with whom to share her concerns; her only adult ally is an out-of-his-depth school guidance counselor whose sitcom-style shabbiness seems misplaced in this earnestly empathetic movie. Still, it’s Melanie’s very aloneness on which a mid-film pivot into even more terrifying dysfunction pivots: If the film attempts to glide past some drastic plotting with melancholy montages scored to lilting acoustic pop, Owen’s quiet, bottled-up performance is less inclined toward such emotional short cuts.
Rather less successful than this tense parent-child standoff is a romantic subplot that pairs Melanie with a very different package of problems: slick rich kid and recovering juvenile alcoholic Daniel (the affable Ian Nelson), whose substance abuse issues are portrayed in a glib shorthand that renders them none too convincing beside the film’s more detailed depiction of mental illness. This is a whole teen melodrama of its own, awkwardly braided with a more unusual, unnerving crisis of domestic insecurity. “Paper Spiders,” like its two wounded lead characters, has quite enough to deal with.