PAPER SPIDERS (2020)

September 29, 2020

Boston Film Festival (2020, virtual)

 Greetings again from the darkness. There are many reasons that might force a kid to grow up too fast. But when it’s in conjunction with having to care for a parent, we can consider it ill-fated. Director Inon Shampanier co-wrote the script with his wife, Natalie Shampanier, and they adeptly handle a story that, in lesser hands, could be over-wrought and not believable. Instead, they benefit from two excellent performances and deliver an emotional and poignant tale of mother and daughter and mental illness.

Lili Taylor stars as Dawn, mother to straight-A high school senior Melanie, played by Stefania LaVie Owen (“Messiah”). We first meet them while on a rainy day campus tour. Dawn is direct in expressing her wish that Melanie remain close to home for college, while ambitious Melanie wants to attend her late father’s alma mater, USC, on a full academic scholarship. It’s clear mother and daughter have a close relationship, but something is a bit off about Dawn, and we get our answer soon enough.

As the new neighbors are moving in, the truck backs into a tree that Dawn’s husband planted years earlier. Dawn flips out, setting off a chain of events where she is convinced the new neighbor is spying on her, tormenting her, and endangering her. Of course, there is no proof of any of this, and the further Dawn slips, the more difficult it is for Melanie to carry the burden of school, a social life, and a paranoid-delusional mother.

Michael Cyril Creighton plays the school counselor that Melanie ropes into meeting with her mother. The scene is played to an awkward comedic effect, but also exemplifies how mental illness creates a stressful environment for everyone involved. Dawn’s agitated attorney boss is played by David Rasche, and Melanie also sets up a profile for mom on an internet dating site, with less-than-hoped-for results. During all of this, Melanie begins a relationship with a rich, alcoholic classmate named Daniel (Ian Nelson), who understandably isn’t equipped to deal with the situation either. Peyton List plays Melanie’s bestie Lacy, and Max Casella has a couple of scenes as the Private Investigator Dawn hires to surveil the neighbor. All in all, it’s a cluster of real life twisted up by mental illness.

Lili Taylor is excellent, and makes sure she keeps Dawn’s actions in the believable-yet-sufferable mode. But the film really belongs to Stefanie LaVie Owen. This is a staggeringly good performance from the young actress, and she quietly conveys a strength in the face of shock and frustration, and the unfair burden she must carry. The film is a reminder that we don’t get to pick our family, and the responsibilities can feel overwhelming at times. It’s not a horror film, but rather one filled with personal horrors – and the film’s title will make sense by the end.

 

 


SWALLOW (2020)

March 5, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Have you ever picked up a marble and wanted to ingest it?  How about a push-pin? A battery? Any other items normally considered inedible? If not, you likely don’t suffer from the psychological disorder known as pica – an eating disorder at the center of the feature film debut from Carlo Mirabella-Davis. While pica may be new and confounding to most of us, the real story is what drives someone to swallow items that could be harmful and cause severe pain?

Haley Bennett (THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN) stars as Hunter Conrad, a newly married trophy wife to spoiled and handsome Richie Conrad (Austin Stowell). Richie is so entitled that his even more entitled dad (David Rasche) makes a big deal out of promoting his son to partner by proclaiming at a dinner party that “he earned it.” Oh and this is after the parents bought the newlyweds a stunning home with a view. It’s obvious Hunter ‘married up’ from a socioeconomic perspective, but her GQ husband pays more attention to his cell phone than he does to his wife or the picture perfect dinners she prepares. Hunter’s Mother-in-Law (Elizabeth Marvel) offers up awkward support and passive-aggressive compliments … such as a self-help book entitled “A Talent for Joy.”

The book is a gift to Hunter immediately after Richie tells his parents “We’re pregnant!” A passage in the book mentions to ‘push yourself to experience new things’. It’s at this point where Hunter sees herself become even more of an accessory within the family. One morning she spots a decorative marble and pops it in her mouth. She seems to take pleasure in this, and … um … after it passes, displays it as some type of trophy. Soon other items join the marble on display, until finally, Hunter is in so much pain, she’s rushed to the hospital for surgery.

Pica is a disorder that’s difficult to understand. Haley seems to be complacent, having no real persona other than her pretty face and pristine wardrobe. Swallowing the items evidently delivers the feeling lacking in her life – a life where her job seems to be becoming the perfect wife, mother, and daughter-in-law. Worried about the safety of the unborn baby, the family hires Luay (Laith Nakli), a Syrian live-in nurse, to keep an eye on Hunter. Oddly enough, the war-toughened Luay shows more compassion to Hunter than anyone in the family.

The film shifts gears a bit when we start learning more of Hunter’s backstory during her trips to the psychiatrist (Zabryna Guevara). This backstory is of course tragic and explains a great deal about Hunter’s strange compulsion. It also leads to a sequence with Denis O’Hare, who is a welcome presence in most any movie. The two share a scene that allows Hunter to fill in the gaps of her life.

Director Mirabella-Davis doesn’t treat the rich as caricatures, but rather symbolic of the self-centeredness that seems to go with wealth. We see good in places we don’t expect it. We lack the trust in places we should be able to depend on. Additionally, we question whether finding one’s true self through genetics makes any real sense when compared with just making up one’s mind about the kind of person they want to be. This is a disturbing, trippy, darker-than-expected film with an interesting score from composer Nathan Halpern. When it veers from the skirts of horror and suspense towards political and social topics, the film loses steam and tries to cram in a bit too much. Still, it’s an unusual and creative film with a terrific performance from Ms. Bennett, and leaves us looking forward to the next Mirabella-Davis project.

watch the trailer: