The Paper Store is a delightful indie from the husband and wife filmmaking team of Nicholas and Katharine Clark Gray. Based on a play written by the latter Gray, the duo expertly adapted the work for the screen, producing a gem of a character study in the process. The film opens with our ghost writing protagonist very much maligning her former employer, grad student Sigurd Rossdale (Penn Badgley). Branding him a “shit heel,” she also proceeds to out him as an academic cheat to his professor, played by the always wonderful Richard Kind. Rewinding a bit, we discover that our ghost writer is actually a cynical drop-out, who is cashing in on her exceptional writing abilities by selling papers to undergrads. Stef Dawson brings her formidable acting skills to the role, giving the character of Annalee Monegan a great balance of vulnerability and blustering bravado, while showing off her intelligence by making the character’s complex world view sound as second nature as ordering a cup of coffee.
Penn Badgley is no slouch here either, and his performance as Sigurd shines in his seemingly effortless command of the role. Providing a perfect foil for Annalee’s intellectual steam rolling, the set up gives a nice pretext for Annalee and Sigurd’s attraction that goes beyond the stereotypes of hormone fueled college romance. The dialogue is crisp and DP Richard Sands does a great job of capturing the action and the space, with stylish compositions that make great use of the limited locations. This is all a testament to the strength of this filmmaking team, as the film really feels expansive, easily immersing the viewer into a topic that could otherwise be quite dull, namely the world of academia. And, while the film displays an excellent command of craft, like all good films, its strength lies in the story.
In this regard, the film does a great job of upsetting expectations and challenging preconceived notions. With Sigurd, we have an unabashed academic cheat, a man who has all the capacity for achievement, yet seemingly eschews it all in the name of expedience and escapism. For her part, Annalee makes no bones about her belief that she holds the moral high ground here, and takes every opportunity to point that out to Sigurd. But, as the story unfolds, the lines become blurrier, and we start to wonder who’s really holding on to the moral compass. It’s a great deal of fun to watch these characters come to grips with their failings, and in a sense, the film holds a mirror up to all of us.
Let’s face it, who among us would ever say that what we’re doing is wrong in the moment. But, every once in a while, we look back and realize that we had been mistaken all along. And that is the beauty of this film, as it gives us a world that is far from black and white — one where it’s really easy to claim high standards, while simultaneously betraying them with the most plausible of explanations. That depth is what makes this simple story stand out and bodes well for the future of these filmmakers. I highly recommend you see this film if you get the chance.
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