Sam (Jeannine Kaspar) is a single mother whose life is in shambles following the departure of her husband Geoffrey (Gabe Fazio). Despondent, she attempts suicide, but is discovered by her six-year-old daughter Lola (Juliet Stills) and survives. After a few months in a hospital recovering from the incident, she returns to the world with her hand held by her sister Ed (Sayra Player), with Lola in Geoffrey's custody.
This whirlwind of agony is summed up perfectly with the character of Ed, who chooses to listen and ignore to all of the worst possible elements of Sam's verbal and emotional signals to her. She has good intentions for her sister, but her actions are an inadvertent wrecking ball swinging madly towards every little piece of solace Sam tries to build. Sam goes on a date with a man named Brian (Mark Alhadeff) who works in Ed's office, and Brian is late to show up, arriving with the information that Sam and Ed are sisters and an excuse that he was swamped under at work. The question of whether Ed, as Brian's boss, was the one who passive-aggressively swamped him, or if perhaps she outright told him stories about Sam's troubled past, but even if she didn't purposefully sabotage the date, her patronizing reaction to Sam's unhappiness is the worst antidote in the world.
The movie belongs to Kaspar, who is on screen almost 100% of the time, aside from the movie's quiet, sad opening. In the interviews on the DVD, Kaspar admits she comes from a loud, enthusiastic family, and the few times when Sam lights up (primarily in meetings with her psychiatrist Dr. Gold, played by Clint Jordan), you can see that energy in her wide eyes. Sam, however, is a quiet, repressed person, and so Kaspar's energy is left to boil under until she can't possibly hold it in any longer. An extended emotional breakdown that starts in a park, shifts to a bar, and ends in the apartment of a sad-eyed stranger (Tom Brangle, very good) is an emotional rollercoaster guided by Kaspar's powerful performance.
Director Joe Maggio works in the same minimalist style as the mumblecore movement, although there isn't much of the quirky sweetness that usually defines those films to be found here. Little touches, like POV shots of Sam's view of the world through her hands, and a sole charming scene where Sam follows a few silly instructions to get a nice gift work really well, and Maggio keeps the pace brisk. Any movie that takes its time and lingers on the minutia of people's lives runs the risk of becoming boring, but Maggio times the story beats perfectly, avoiding the 2nd-to-3rd act drag I often feel in movies.
In one of the movie's opening scenes, Dr. Gold suggests that what Sam needs is "a little normalcy", but during her stay in the clinic, "normalcy" has started to seem impossible. The world Sam returns to is one filled with land mines, whether they come in the form of her sister's attempted helpfulness, the decisions other people have made in her stead while she was away, and potential suitors for a life in the future that seems so far away. I thought about the title, Paper Covers Rock, which Sam wins a round of in a local bike shop. She may be good at the game when the stakes are low, but she is the rock, defeated and overcome by the seemingly insigificant things in her life that weigh her down.
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