A mysterious boarding school perfectly reforms wayward girls to fit their surroundings’ exact desires.
Uma is about to consummate her marriage to a rich young man, sealing her family’s economic security. Her husband enters the futuristic boudoir and praises his choice to send her to the mysterious finishing school known as Paradise Hills just two months before, wiping away all of her petulant, independent leanings. We then flashback to her arrival at this extravagant resort and our mystery begins. Paradise Hills is a dazzling new sci-fi fantasy film from writer-director Alice Waddington that is a bit hard to describe yet surprisingly simple. It’s the story of societal norms being challenged in the form of a captivating fantasy.
As Uma comes to in her new holding cell, she is greeted by the chipper Duchess (Milla Jovovich) via intercom. Uma is informed that she will be held on this island for 2 months in order to consider the state of her life and to question, very seriously, whether or not she should marry the rich young man her mother is demanding her to. Soon enough Uma is moved to a more open setting, sharing an open-air veranda with roommates Yu (Awkwafina) and Chloe (Danielle Macdonald). Between yoga classes and precisely timed breakfasts, lunches, and evening dinners, the three breeze about in wispy white gowns and learn that they all have been sent here because they don’t seem to fit into what their families and society expects of them. In this strangely utopian future, social classes are prized and appearance is absolutely everything.
“…they all have been sent here because they don’t seem to fit into what their families and society expects of them.”
Then there is the Dutches played wonderfully by Jovovich. Doing the best Joan Crawford I have seen since Fay Dunaway, Jovovich attempts to win the girls over with a light, touch of a confidant while having the power to command their every move in order to change them. Then there is the sultry, mysterious love interest Amarna (Eiza González). A pop star that hasn’t been living up to her fans’ expectations, Armana is a slick, dangerous woman who grows to fall in love with Uma during their stay. She knows the ropes of the place, has a secret hiding place in the caves down below to go have a cigarette and has become increasingly suspicious of Paradise Hills and their particular modalities of treatment.
The script by Brian DeLeeuw, Nacho Vigalondo, and Alice Waddington efficiently sets up an entirely original fantasy world that seems to be one part Logan’s Run, one part Fantasy Island, and a dash of MC Escher that is immediately believable and understood. The costume design by Alberto Valcárcel embraces to Oscar-winning look of Logan’s Run while infusing some flamboyant touches that are simply jaw-dropping. Then there is the ravishing production design by Laia Colet with impeccable set decoration by Alfonso Mancha that infuses Mediterranean influences with glaring neon touches and a vibrant, eye-popping tone that further sells the opulent look. What fascinates me is that for an independent movie, this thing looks better than a studio film made for three times as much. Everyone is on their game here.
“…efficiently sets up an entirely original fantasy world that seems to be one part Logan’s Run, one part Fantasy Island, and a dash of MC Escher…”
Speaking of the game, Waddington guides a roughly 1,000-person cast and crew with a sure, assertive and clear vision that comes to life on the screen. I struggle to remember a more imaginative creation from a relatively young filmmaker. Yes, it’s limited by budget and occasionally a bit of polish, but the sheer amount of stuff that she got right in developing this movie is to be admired.
Yes, we return to the storyline of the wedding set up at the begging of the film after a sci-fi-fantasy adventure that features mercurial loyalties, terrifying discoveries, romance. Yes, it is a strikingly original movie that empowers the oppressed with a parable that is relatable and above all entertaining. Limited only by experience and budget, and imbued with spectacular creativity, Paradise Hills is a resort I think I will return to.
Paradise Hills (2019) Directed by Alice Waddington. Written by Brian DeLeeuw, Nacho Vigalondo, Alice Waddington. Starring Emma Roberts, Eiza González, Awkwafina, Danielle Macdonald, Milla Jovovich. Paradise Hills screened at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
7 out of 10 stars