Steve James’s “Reel Paradise” is an honest look at the experience of a family who lives a yearlong tropical movie adventure on a remote island in Fiji. Without romanticizing the experience, the documentary captures the exploration, excitement and frustration of an independent film guru’s family’s last month after a year of life in another culture. James uses his thoughtful observation to create a portrait of a family that sort of adapted and sort of refused to adapt to a new way of life.
Influential indie film personality John Pierson, known for his involvement in the careers of Spike Lee, Michael Moore, Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith, went to the island to relax and rediscover his love for movies. Pierson found the theater when doing a segment on the world’s most remote movie theater for his IFC news magazine show “Split Screen,” and fell in love with the unreserved enthusiasm that the audience displayed while watching. The theater was going to close down, so Pierson decided to move to the island for a year and show movies to the people for free. There’s a certain charm to the dusty, rundown theater that fills up with enthusiastic islanders that makes the average experience at a half-empty multiplex seem a bit hollow.
Taking his audience into consideration, Pierson’s programming isn’t solely independent, and he admits there are two or three or more “Hot Chicks” for every “Bend it Like Beckham.” But he says that watching only independent films can be just as tedious as Hollywood films. Shots of his face while watching the movies reveal a certain joy in knowing his audience is reveling in the material. Wyatt, John’s energetic son, provides an interesting contrast to his father by offering a voice-of-the-people opinion on movies, insulting his father’s more art-oriented programming choices, like “Apocalypse Now Redux,” by telling him that nobody is going to come.
Life in paradise isn’t entirely sunny. In addition to normal problems like John and his wife Janet’s conflicts with their free-spirited teenage daughter Georgia, the Pierson parents and children face being different from everyone else in the community. While the kids have friends at school, their integration comes in varying degrees of success, especially since they don’t speak the native language. John’s controlling personality doesn?t sit well with the laid-back Fijian way of life, which he refuses to adapt to despite his desire to be on the island. More stress comes when their house is broken into for the second time and their computers are stolen. They’re the richest people in town and an obvious target since everyone knows when they’ll be at the movie theater. Janet has a particularly hard time with the feeling that she can?t trust her friends because one of them could be the thief.
While the Pierson’s experience was no doubt ultimately a rewarding one, “Reel Paradise” recognizes that it wasn?t simply a fun extended vacation. The cultural differences and familial conflicts add new dimensions to the character studies as different family members adapt to their new, temporary way of life.