Producers: Pin-Chun Liu, Bonnie Buckner and Paul Kowalski   Director: Paul Kowalski   Screenplay: Paul Kowalkski   Cast: Lydia Look, Alan Trong, Elaine Kao, Lynn Chen, Jake Harlan Kim, Kevin David Lin, Carrie Wampler, Mark D. Espinoza. Cici Lau, Jen Sung and Seth Numrich   Distributor: Gravitas Ventures

Grade: B-

Paul Kowalksi’s debut feature combines two challenging subjects.  One is the often alienating immigrant experience in America, reflected in the life of a tragically troubled Chinese family in California.  The second is the reality of mental illness in the explosion of school violence.  It goes without saying that in wrestling with such dark material, “Paper Tiger” is a somber film, but also a grimly compelling one.

Writer-director Paul Kowalski telegraphs what to expect at the end in a brief opening scene in which an obviously despondent Lily (Lydia Look) is glimpsed purchasing a handgun.  He then flashes back to months earlier, when she and her son Edward (Alan Trong) are grieving at the funeral of her husband Michael (Mark D. Espinoza).  The event proves traumatic for the boy, who’s just beginning his senior year of high school and is clearly emotionally distraught. 

Alan spends most of his time playing violent video games alone in his room.  He’s an outcast at school, where his antagonism toward his cousin and his other classmates grows more intense as the year goes on.  His sometimes bizarre antics—at one point he reacts hysterically to a film about flying—lead a teacher to suggest that he should receive therapy, a suggestion his mother initially rejects.  She insists that a stern regimen at home will suffice, though eventually he goes on medication, and she feeds it to him surreptitiously when he skips taking it.   

Edward’s condition worsens, however.  Although finding some solace in the attention of his aunt Mei (Elaine Kao), who suggests that they fix up his father’s garden together, he’s haunted by memories of Michael, and begins to have visions of—and conversations with—a figure from one of his games, JT (Seth Numrich), who encourages him to take action against those he sees as his oppressors.  He begins scribbling in a notebook that Lily finds—notes that she believes suggest that he’s planning to copy a recent school shooting.

A further wrinkle arises when Lily is diagnosed with a terminal illness.  Still she tries to control Edward, but his condition worsens, and leads Mei to arrange for what amounts to an exorcism conducted by a Taoist folk ritual master, or fashi (Jen Sung).  It only exacerbates the situation, and Lily, convinced that she must take action to prevent Edward from giving in to his homicidal tendencies, makes a fateful decision.  Though the ending doesn’t entirely upend expectations, it adds a sad twist to them.

The narrative that Kowalski has fashioned undeniably has melodramatic elements, and indeed a good number of them.  But his deliberate pacing and general understatement have a mitigating effect.  And the performances, particularly by Look and Trong, are nuanced and credible, making one genuinely fascinated by their plight.  Kowalski’s touch with the supporting players isn’t as sure, but there’s no doubting the sincerity and dedication of the entire cast.

“Paper Tiger” is a small independent production, and the limitation of resources is sometimes quite evident.  But Ed Wu’s cinematography, while rough, is grittily atmospheric, and Ying-Te Julie Chen’s production design feels authentic.  The lack of smoothness in Steven Wang’s editing actually work’s to the film’s advantage (the script is divided by the seasons of the school year), and a special nod goes to Lucas Lechowski’s spare score, which is generally mournful except for moments when it almost screams out a warning of danger ahead.

This is the kind of film that probably would have played well in festivals, had they been operating as usual over the past year.  But more adventurous viewers might seek it out online to catch the work of a promising young filmmaker.