In a Better World, ‘Paper Covers Rock’ Would Have Made Jeannine Kaspar a Star
Joe Maggio’s indie drama about a young mother’s battle with depression is a hopeful and haunting journey.
Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned. I’ll be shining a light in two directions – I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.
This week’s pick is an indie drama – I know, ugh – that in a better world would have made its lead a star. It also premiered at SXSW in 2008.
I don’t necessarily believe in alternate realities, but if I did I’d like to think that in addition to ones in which I’m a millionaire, a vigilante, or a wildlife photographer there would also be one in which Jeannine Kaspar was a household name. She would be headlining Hollywood rom-coms and big-budget franchises, and it all would have started with some much-deserved recognition for her lead role in 2008’s Paper Covers Rock. The film is a quiet tale of struggle and reconciliation from filmmaker Joe Maggio, and it’s anchored by the sheer weight of Kaspar’s heart, eyes, and performance.
Kaspar plays Sam, the young mother of a little girl named Lola (Juliet Stills), and we first meet both as the child awakes, brushes her teeth, gets dressed, and discovers her mother passed out with a plastic bag over her head. Two months later Sam is being released from a psychiatric facility that has diagnosed her with severe chronic depression – she took sleeping pills fully intending to wake up, but she put the bag on her head to ensure she wouldn’t. “That’s the crazy part,” she tells her therapist. “I wanted both things, to wake up, and not to wake up.”
The depression originated with the death of her own mother when Sam was still a teenager but abated after Lola’s birth only to return again a few years later. It was part of what drove the girl’s father away, but after the incident Geoffrey (Gabe Fazio) has begun raising her with his new girlfriend. Sam’s goal is to regain custody of Lola, and the first step has to be seeing her daughter and apologizing. It turns out though that there are a multitude of other “first steps” before then.
She moves in with her older sister, Ed (Sayra Player), who cares deeply for her sibling despite not quite knowing how to show it. The physical representations are there – she gives Sam a place to stay, fixes her meals, and helps her get a job at her workplace – but her own concerns and insecurity lead her towards critical nitpicking and possibly even unintentional sabotage. Sam’s working hard towards her goal and taking her meds, attending therapy, and keeping healthy by staying sober and jogging.
It’s a visible struggle at times, a truth made all the more evident in Kaspar’s dark, expressive eyes and muted glances, but there’s also a strong sense of hope building. A co-worker asks her out on a date, and while she’s hesitant at first she accepts to counter her natural desire to withdraw inside herself. A small triumph comes when she picks up a bike frame early on, and over time adds pieces until it’s complete leading to a wonderfully rewarding first ride through the city streets. And while she can’t bring herself to connect yet, she steals brief looks at Lola exiting her school or playing in a park and calls Geoffrey to talk before hanging up in silence.
There’s progress. There’s a possible path to recovery. There’s reason to believe she’ll make it through this.
And then you remember this is an indie drama about a depressed alcoholic who attempted suicide, and suddenly all bets are off.
Kaspar’s performance is a contained wonder of small motions, nervous (and contagious) smiles, and waves of darkness that wash over her face powered by doubt and anger. There are few dramatic outbursts here as pain and guilt often cut her outward-facing rage short leaving her eyes cast downward and her head paused in defeat. She’s attempting to be a rock of sorts – strong, motionless, and filled with potential – but the weight of things that should be inconsequential continues to pile across her back until the final piece makes the load unbearable. It’s a piece of paper revealing that she may have lost her daughter for good.
Maggio’s film never feels rushed and is equally free of drag, and while we fear the spiral we know is coming for Sam its arrival ratchets up Kaspar’s power and heartbreak. Reality pours in almost as quickly as the vodka, and Sam’s road to recovery becomes a path of self-destruction. The film’s final minutes see her essentially stalking her daughter on a class trip to the aquarium, working up the nerve to press a reunion that we worry could go south very quickly.
I won’t reveal where the film’s haunting ending lands except to say this. A passerby tells an incredulous Sam at one point that the ocean water is perfect temperature for swimming in November as it’s balanced by the cooler air. “It’s all in the perspective,” he tells her. The film’s final shot leaves viewers with the same message – it could be the end, but it could also be the true first step towards a new beginning.
Paper Covers Rock premiered at SXSW in 2008 and landed on DVD two years later only to be seen by twelve people (per my informal polling of having never met or spoken to anyone else who’s seen it). The film, and Kaspar’s powerfully touching performance deserved better. She breaks your heart with a subtle sadness and without the aid of a big, loud, “Oscar clip” scene. It seems at times like she’s reciting an inner monologue, one unheard by viewers but felt by her character all the same, and we get the resulting despondency without being told how to feel. Kaspar’s in almost every scene, and while Maggio’s script and direction offer an affecting base it’s her performance that pushes and pulls us onward.
In my alternate universe Kaspar would have followed this up by playing Pepper Potts in Iron Man instead of “Flight Attendant.” Instead of an “uncredited” appearance in 2013’s Runner Runner she would have been the second lead alongside Melissa McCarthy in The Heat. (And she never would have starred in the eternally grimy Hidden in the Woods…)
I’m stuck with this reality though, so I’m content knowing four things. Paper Covers Rock is a beautiful film, Kaspar is brilliant in it, she’s still a working actor, and someday… someday we’ll get to enjoy her and Maggio’s long-promised follow-up collaboration, Supermoto.
Read more entries in last year’s The Essentials, and follow along every Monday with Missed Connections — my appreciations of movies that failed to find an audience for one reason or another.
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