Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 24 March 2008
Source 35mm print
Categories The 2008 South by Southwest Film Festival
A little girl is preparing for school on her own, intermittently attempting to wake her mother. She brushes her teeth, puts on clean clothes, and eats breakfast. These images are routine to her, but achieve a solemnity for the viewer because the girl’s mother is not around, even though it’s implied she should be. Determinedly, the girl enters her mother’s bedroom, and finds her semi-conscious, a plastic bag affixed around her head. The mother’s eyes open slowly.
The next scene occurs some time later and finds the woman, Sam, moving in to her sister’s apartment. The sister is not insensitive, but treats her sibling with some abrasiveness, instructing her firmly to keep clean and to be respectful of her property. The daughter has been put in custody elsewhere. Sam resigns to all of this—she looks down at her feet most of the time, and speaks little, her desperation manifested in comprehensive withdrawal. Occasionally she’ll make eye contact, and seldom inflects her voice with anything resembling passion. When she’s asked on a date, even, she initially declines, fearing the experience will compromise her preference for indifference.
Much of Paper Covers Rock is delivered in this muted tone. It is a film about self-destruction and rehabilitation, and how these things are manifested in ephemeral gestures in as much as they are in fits. The film’s quiet sense of desperation is also told semiotically (the title being an example, a reference to the reciprocal nature of hope and loss): Sam needs a bicycle for her new job, and all she can afford is a cheap frame without any wheels. It’s a start, a motion toward becoming more emotionally resourceful.
One of Sam’s main goals is reconnecting with her daughter (who is with her father, with whom Sam is no longer in touch), and the film builds toward some sort of reunion with the promise of climax. This reunion doesn’t occur formulaically. Sam’s pain is something that she must reconcile for the rest of her life, so even seeing her daughter again doesn’t entirely offset her depression. This and other glimpses of happiness aren’t permanent, but her inability to stabilize is; it’s easier for Sam to withdraw than most other people, and the actions that invite her to do so are virtually constant.
Paper Covers Rock pivots around Sam’s frame of mind, which we don’t entirely have access to. Her world consists of her sister’s cramped apartment (at which she sleeps on a couch, with her belongings adjacent) or the office building where she is a custodian. These aren’t visual settings, and they shouldn’t be because the emphasis is directed internally. You’re to get a sense of her emotive landscape, but it’s a landscape the viewer must imagine for the most part. Ultimately it is clear, however, that her hardship is self-inflicted. Sam is used to being numb, and for her pain may suffice in the absence of pleasure.
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