Simply put, Paper Covers Rock is a character study of a young woman in distress. After a failed suicide attempt, Sam (Jeannine Kaspar) slowly tries to put her life back together. She loses custody of her young daughter to her ex-husband. She moves in with her sister Ed (Sayra Player) in a small New York City apartment. She meets regularly with her therapist, but Sam is numb with pain and her life is at a standstill.
The first half of the film focuses on Sam’s relationship with her controlling sister and cold, distant therapist. Denied access to her daughter, Sam’s crushing loneliness is depicted in stark terms. The social stigma of a suicide attempt affects every relationship in Sam’s life. People treat her with wary courtesy, as if she’s carrying a deadly virus that might infect the non-suicidal majority. Emotionally vulnerable and friendless, Sam has no one to confide in, no one that she can trust.
In a visit to a neighborhood bicycle shop, Sam can only afford to buy a rusty bicycle frame. She builds the bike piece-by-piece, buying parts by scraping up cash while working as a janitor in an office complex. The bike is an apt metaphor for Sam’s life – stripped bare, it has to be reassembled.
Writer/Director Joe Maggio pays careful attention to the small details in Sam’s life as she begins to recover. A store clerk gives her a single daffodil, a spontaneous act of kindness that’s freighted with meaning; Sam’s first ride on her bicycle is beautifully shot and scored as she glides down New York streets on a golden autumn afternoon.
When Sam buys a pair of rhinestone shoes to wear on the subway, we see her smile for the first time, but a visit to her therapist deflates her:
Dr. Gold: Why the smile?
Sam: Am I smiling? I feel good, not bouncing off walls, but I feel better.
Dr. Gold: Things are coming along, your meds are kicking in.
Just like that, Gold undercuts everything that Sam has accomplished. Gold doesn’t seem particularly interested in her; she’s merely a basket case on Prozac. For Sam, though, daily disappointments loom large; after getting stood up on a date, she seems to shrink before our eyes. This leads to a fight with her sister:
Sam: You didn’t say anything to Brian, did you?
Ed: What do you mean? I told him you were my sister.
Sam: I thought you might have said something to him.
Ed: You get stood up so it’s my fault. I must have sabotaged your date.
Jeannine Kaspar turns in a brilliant performance as Sam, her subtle expressions and body language convey a vast unspoken grief. In an interview on the DVD’s extras, Kaspar says, “The hardest thing for Sam is that she’s lost everyone she loves and has no one to look after her. She’s just numb and has this inner dialog going on all the time. She’s trying to get to a safer place”.
In the film’s climax, Sam receives a letter from her daughter’s school regarding a field trip to the aquarium. Sam decides to go there, and what follows is a five-minute dialog-free sequence as Sam quietly follows Lola through the aquarium.
This is why independent films matter: when the reunion of Sam and Lola finally occurs, no Hollywood blockbuster of car chases and explosions can match the human drama that unfolds between a mother and her seven-year-old daughter:
Lola: Why are you here?
Sam: I came to see you… because I miss you.
Lola: Why are you crying?
Sam: Because I’m happy… because I love you.
Lola: Are you going to stay with me?
Sam: I want to, more than anything, but I have to go away for a while. But I’ll come back soon – I promise.
There’s no resolution in Paper Covers Rock, only a fragile promise made by a damaged mother to her only daughter. Yet the power of that promise resonates long after the film is over.
The DVD extras include interviews with the cast and composer Sam Bisbee who contributed the film’s beautiful score. “I wrote the score and then also played it backwards”, Bisbee says. “Ironically the metaphor of the music matches what Sam is going through, the metaphor of her recovery — it’s not so simple, you don’t just get better, it’s a cyclical thing, you’re constantly moving backwards and forwards”.