REVIEW: Compassion and tension drive compelling feature film ‘Paper Spiders’ at the Boston Film Festival

Sponsored in part by NBC Universal, Boston Magazine, and Maydaze Films, The 36th annual Boston Film Festival took place virtually this year due to Covid-19 with the option to attend live screenings in Boston, Massachusetts from Thursday, September 24 through Sunday, September 27. 

Boston Film Festival offered live and virtual films during the 4-day festival Photo courtesy of the Boston Film Festival

Featuring the award-winning documentary, Jay Leno’s Garage, the four-day festival included the US premiere of feature films Small Town Wisconsin and Paper Spiders, a wide variety of short films, and powerful documentaries such as the world premiere of This Hits Home, Me The People, Beyond Zero, and ‘25’ Tony Conigliaro The Documentary,  the US Premiere of The Memory of Water, and The Girl Who Wore Freedom, as well as the East Coast premieres of Stro: The Michael D’Saro Story, Knots:  A Forced Marriage Story and After the Rain. Q and A sessions were held with actors, directors, and foremost experts.  Click here for the full schedule.

Your Virtual film selection the Boston Film Festival website Photo courtesy of the Boston Film Festival

The Boston Film Festival offered an option to see scheduled screenings of select films at the stellar Showplace Icon Theatre.  Located at the Boston Seaport and conveniently located at the Courthouse stop on the Silver Line, The Showplace Icon Theatre features state-of-the-art stadium seating with plush reclining chairs, a beverage holder, and a place for your popcorn.  Click here for a closer look at this amazing theatre and here for more information and tickets.

Showplace Icon Theatre, located at Boston Seaport. Photo courtesy of Jeanne Denizard

No matter what the circumstances, it is not easy dealing with mental illness, especially if it is a parent.  However, that is not the crux of the US Premiere of Paper Spiders, a coming-of-age tale about a teenager named Melanie portrayed with endearing maturity by Stefania LeVie Owen, and her relationship with her widowed mother Dawn, portrayed masterfully by Lili Taylor.  They are a fractured but seemingly happy family coming to terms with loss and attempting a new beginning. 

Set in Syracuse, NY, The film picks right up with relatable mother-daughter chatter at a pivotal time in Melanie’s life as they tour a college Melanie is interested in attending. Their sweet conversation makes it easy to see their close relationship, but later when their neighbor hits a tree in their front yard, what ensues is nothing Melanie could have ever imagined.   

‘Paper Spiders’ made its US premiere at the Boston Film Festival Photo courtesy of the Boston Film Festival

Each member of this compelling cast becomes more complex as the tale progresses, led by Lili Taylor as Melanie’s widowed and troubled mother, Dawn.  Taylor is no stranger to quirky characters and her usual odd charm shines through as Melanie’s talkative and anxious mother.  With a particular talent for exuding fear in her eyes, Taylor evokes sympathy and dismay as Dawn transforms from a concerned mother to living her life with one eye open, her vulnerability palpable as she struggles to see things clearly.

Stefania LeVie Owen is wonderful as responsible, cautious, and practical Melanie as she struggles to achieve a nearly impossible balance between being a teenager and handling her mother’s increasingly concerning episodes. What makes this struggle more poignant is the natural chemistry between Owen and Taylor who exude as much ease as they do strain.  This escalating tension mounts in quick paces as viewed through Owen’s innocent and alarmed perspective.

Peyton List, seen more recently as Tory in Netflix’s popular Cobra Kai series, is a welcome addition as Lacy, Melanie’s fun-loving and promiscuous best friend.  Serious and quiet, Melanie and Lacy’s contrasting personalities offer a break from the film’s serious nature.  Ian Nelson is charismatic as Melanie’s good humored, persistent, and wealthy classmate Daniel.  Nelson and Owen are charming together and also contribute to some of the film’s lighter moments until life inevitably gets more complicated.

Lili Taylor as Dawn in ‘Paper Spiders’ Photo courtesy of the Boston Film Festival

Director and writer Inon Shampanier and his wife and writer Natalie Shampanier create a beautiful blend of funny moments and engaging montages with a deeper look at Dawn and Melanie’s daunting reality.

After all, mental illness can become a roller coaster of emotions such as grief, anger, paranoia, loneliness, and anxiety, but the crux of Paper Spiders isn’t any of these things.  It’s about the struggle through this unpredictable journey with those you love with understanding, ever holding on to hope.  Paper Spiders never loses sight of that.

Paper Spiders is currently touring the film festival circuit nationwide.  Click here to see where Paper Spiders will be shown next and here for more about this year’s Boston Film Festival and future updates.

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