Synopsis – Uma is a teen girl who wakes up in an apparently idyllic school for young ladies to reform rebel girls. But a dark secret lies within its walls.
My Take – Every now and then we get a film which seems to be build out of ideas rejected in earlier films, ideas which may seem fresh and compelling on paper, but end up totally lacking when translated on the big screen. However, this process is tricky, when done right, victory embraces the finished product at the door, but when done wrong, the whole enterprise ends up being tarnished upon arrival.
This film which marks Spanish director Alice Waddington’s feature-length debut, is one such example.
Her film, a futuristic take on class warfare, at first glance seems like a compellingly visually daring sci-fi fantasy that realizes its beautiful world of strange, intricate designs and candy colors, and features a unique mixture of costume and set designs, add to that a very recognizable female cast.
But somehow, despite all that, never manages to concentrate on working on its cohesive story surrounding its jumbled themes. Making it feel like an adaptation (it is not) where all the depth from the book got lost in translation, as you could imagine its intriguing themes and characters being richer in a format that has more space to explore them.
For fans of YA entertainment, the generic fairy-tale setup and shallow plot aren’t especially unusual, and may not be much of a barrier, but for anyone looking for a watered-down hodgepodge version of every other film inspired by the Hunger Games series, well this is it.
The story follows Uma (Emma Roberts), a young woman who wakes up at Paradise Hills, a mysterious treatment facility where blooming flowers, pretty dresses, yoga and makeovers are meant to turn bad girls into new compliant, practical and polite versions that will please their families. And as Uma has rejected the wedding proposal of a wealthy yet sociopathic businessman, her mother got her admitted so she can change her mind about the marriage which will supposedly get their family out of debt.
During her stay, Uma also meets fellow outcasts Yu (Awkwafina), who has been sent to fix her crippling anxiety, and Chloe (Danielle Macdonald), whose parents hope she’ll return looking like her beauty pageant sister. However, as soon as she forms a bond with Amarna (Eiza Gonzalez), a troubled pop star, Uma begins to realize that something nefarious is going on beneath the luxuriously feminine, flower-filled exterior of facility and that the headmistress known as The Duchess (Milla Jovovich) is hiding something behind her pretty and polished demeanor.
Surprisingly the film runs face-first into storytelling issues within the opening act. By incorporating the age-old flashback trope, the film informs viewers that Uma not only makes it off the island but is now a brainwashed shell of her former self. As such, since all narrative tension is now deflated, the film must rely exclusively on the intricacies of its plot to propel the story, a tactic that fails to bloom considering that all the twists are predictably derivative.
The biggest problem here is that the concept of the film isn’t revolutionary, a run-of-the-mill commentary on societal standards for women, forcing them to look and behave in ways that are deemed appropriate. But there’s no attempt to delve deeper into the issue itself, only to use it as a plot-line.
The script by Brian DeLeeuw and Nacho Vigalondo, based on a story by Waddington herself, doles out standard YA tropes without doing enough to elevate them. Friendships are forged, tragic backstories are revealed, and romance is added to the mix. But while the film is refreshingly casual about introducing a bisexual love triangle into a genre that’s usually defined by hetero-romances, neither side of Uma’s dueling love affair ever develops much of a pulse.
While the film does deserve praise for being undeniably stunning on a visual level. Both the set and costume design are nothing short of praiseworthy, as the film succeeds in immersing you in an idyllic dollhouse atmosphere.
But, despite its distinctive aesthetic, there’s something tentative and sometimes even a little bit boring about the film. You can understand what the film is trying to do with its themes and it’s impossible to miss what it’s doing with its visuals; it just never quite hits on a visceral emotional level, and often looks like a music video and never entirely shakes the feeling of being one, even as it’s interested in meaty ideas about the performance of femininity, the strength of female relationships, and the toxicity of women who uphold the patriarchy.
A lot of that is because it has a tone that never decides on a route to take, which results in a mismatched puddle of half-cooked concepts. Director Waddington’s film prides itself on its empowering messages, but its careless approach to thoughtful topics is jarringly confused. Correspondingly, classism, the relevance of monogamy, and sexual identity all exist within the film’s theme, but the film never discusses these topics with any grace, wit, or creativity. And despite how clearly something is off about this island facility, the film struggles to develop any sense of its underlying darkness.
There’s little menace beyond Milla Jovovich’s impressive turn as the Duchess, who she portrays with a dead-eyed, passive-aggressive pleasantness, like a therapist not entirely concealing dislike of her patients. Nevertheless, the rest of the cast is charming, with Emma Roberts being great as always, Awkwafina delivering a dialed-back performance, Danielle Macdonald playing her comfortable self again, and Eiza González being likable. However, Jeremy Irvine is massively wasted here. On the whole, ‘Paradise Hills’ is a bizarre film that lacks the substance required to be the epic feminist fairy tale it aimed to be.
Directed – Alice Waddington
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 95 minutes