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By Pete Vonder Haar | March 13, 2008

I admit to being a little biased with regard to movies about mental illness. Being a man of simple tastes, and an American, my preferred brand of psychosis is usually manifested by some guy with a chainsaw. So it’s to writer/director Joe Maggio’s credit that “Paper Covers Rock” is as effective an effort as it is.

The movie opens with a suicide attempt. Sam (Jeannine Kaspar) has suffered from clinical depression for many years, and one morning she takes a bunch of pills and ties a plastic bag over her head. Trouble is, she’s also a single mom to her young daughter Lola, who discovers her and (presumably) keeps her from dying.

Two months pass, and Sam is taken in by her older sister Ed (Sayra Player), who is as anal retentive as her younger sibling is miserable. Life progresses successfully for a while: Sam gets a job, takes her meds, and tries to adhere to her sister’s rules. There are warning signs throughout, however (Sam’s habit of hoarding Saran Wrap, or steadfastly refusing to read her mail), and things really go downhill when Sam declares that she wants Lola back.

“Paper Covers Rock” is a difficult movie to watch, both for Sam’s seemingly inexplicable self-destructive behaviors and for the dawning realization that a happy ending isn’t necessarily around the corner. Kaspar comes into her own as the movie progresses, though she doesn’t really sell us convincingly early on. Her striking resemblance to comedian Sarah Silverman is a bit off-putting here as well, but that’s hardly her fault.

Player, on the other hand, gives a great performance as Ed, who is both stronger than her sister and weaker in some ways. Too often movies like this focus on the main character while barely shading in the supporting cast, but Maggio doesn’t make that mistake, ably fleshing out the other roles and integrating them into the story.

I was prepared to dislike “Paper Covers Rock” simply from the standpoint of one who’s sat through more than his fair share of navel-gazing indie festival flicks. I’m happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised, as this is a fairly impressive endeavor.

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