2019 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: Alice Waddington brought her feature film debut, “Paradise Hills,” to the mountains of Park City. Premiering in the Next section of the festival, “Paradise Hills” is a blend of science fiction and fantasy set in something of a dystopian charm school.
“Paradise Hills” opens on an opulent wedding, with kaleidoscope chandeliers, fancy costumes, and a young bride singing a song of subservience to her new husband. It all seems very refined, even with the underlying sense that something isn’t quite right.
Then the timeline moves backward two months and Uma (Emma Roberts) wakes up alone in a room painting like a vaguely menacing Garden of Eden. With no sense of how she got there or how long it has been, Uma attempts to escape at the first opportunity. But that effort is thwarted when she runs into Amarna (Eiza González), another guest of the institution.
The introduction to life and the people of Paradise Hills is colorful and bright and always tinged with a sense of lurking danger. Uma meets The Duchess (Milla Jovovich), a woman who speaks as if from a fairy tale. And like in a fairy tale, it is unclear whether she is to be trusted or feared. Soon after, Uma meets Chloe (Danielle Macdonald) and Yu (Awkwafina). The two women have very different attitudes towards their incarceration. Chloe was sent by her parents, who long for their imperfect daughter to become a pageant queen like her sisters. Yu was sent by her aunt and uncle, “uppers” who needed to make something of the “lower” niece entrusted to their care.
In this dystopian world, global society is reduced to simply the uppers and the lowers. Uma is an upper, though barely hanging onto that title with the good grace of her fiancé. Her life and engagement are quite reminiscent of Rose Dewitt Bukater and Calvin Hockley. Uma’s future has been decided on her behalf and without her input.
These insights into the outside world provide the first concrete clues that this is not the paradise that it claims to be. And for awhile, the mystery is intriguing. The talented group of actresses are interesting to watch. Danielle Macdonald and Eiza González are particularly good. Macdonald plays Chloe as a naively optimistic southern belle who wants to please everyone and believes she can. González is a perfect fit as the misfit pop star with a rebellious streak.
The other standout performance belongs to Milla Jovovich. She is difficult to pin down, with a character that could either be a Stepford Wife or possibly God Herself. The fact it isn’t so clear is the biggest reason to keep watching.
For a while, the story stays interesting, even as it becomes increasingly predictable and familiar. Eventually, it dips into the well-trod path of similar dystopian fantasies. For a film that has so many great things to say, this is an unfortunate trajectory. The script by Brian DeLeeuw and Nacho Vigalondo becomes a bit too derivative of other films. It would delve too far into spoiler territory to begin naming them.
That being said, director Alice Waddington has a strong point of view and breathes life into familiar plot points. Her commentary on the expectations placed upon women is sometimes subtle and sometimes very pointed. The young ladies’ costumes are soft and feminine, frilly white corsets that bind like birds in cages. Their treatments consist of soothing yoga classes and therapy sessions too bizarre to describe.
“Paradise Hills” is a good attempt at originality, even if it gets a little too involved in its own strangeness. It wraps femininity and feminism into an engaging experience. Even if this doesn’t break any new barriers, Waddington’s voice is a welcome one and it will be fun to see where she goes next.