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Paradise Hills
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by Jay Seaver

"Pretty enough to get away with being exactly what it seems."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Paradise Hills" feels a bit like a Jaques Demy nightmare, and I kind of hope we get more of those as time goes on - lavish fantasies by/for/about women, pulled off with flair, even if it means I'm not the best person to judge them. The movie is girly as heck and works hard on making sure that its heroines don't have to take on male characteristics to fight back - or, for that matter, to be villains, while still being fun (if somewhat familiar) science fiction.

It starts with a wedding and then a flashback to two months earlier, when Uma (Emma Roberts) was clearly not nearly so excited about marrying Son (Arnaud Valois) and as such was sent to Paradise Hills, which looks like an island spa except that there is not only no leaving until one has pleased The Duchess (Milla Jovovich) and become the sort of woman who understands her place in society. Uma is assigned a room with plus-sized southern girl Chloe (Danielle Macdonald) and abrasive, headphone-wearing heiress Yu (Awkwafina), and also makes friends with rehabbing pop star Amarna (Eiza González). The man she truly loves, Markus (Jeremy Irvine), sneaks onto the island to rescue her, but even with his help, escape will be difficult, especially since the ladies are taken to a mysterious chamber after being drugged at night.

It's a good thing that Paradise Hills has style to burn, because it often hews more than a little closer to what's expected from the story than one might initially hope. As much as the opening flash-forward is actually in the top 5% of such things (it establishes the world outside of Paradise Hills a bit, and there are still surprises on tap as the movie gets there), it also gives off a Stepford Wives vibe that earns some early groans and may turn people off before it starts getting interesting. The film doesn't often surprise in what the next step is for much of the running time, although that's okay; it's seldom been told so entitling from the point of view of the women being "reprogrammed". It looks great, but more importantly, it doesn't look entirely like a male fantasy of submissive women. It's more insidious in how it attempts to twist a more modern femininity into something that is not obviously subservient but definitely secondary. The look of it also melds the future and a conscious return to the rule of aristocracy nicely, and the explicit emphasis on class serves as a reminder that Uma and her new friends are starting from a privileged position and their point of view isn't universal.

Which isn't to say that the film doesn't have an appealing cast who fit their roles well enough to keep things moving with relatively little explanation. Emma Roberts, for instance, does really well at starting Uma at "why is this happening to me?" without quite being insufferable; she feels like she can get to "why does this happen to anyone" eventually. She's got a good group to bounce off of in Awkwafina, Eiza González, and especially an energetic Danielle Macdonald. Still, nobody seems to be having as much fun as Milla Jovovich (not that their characters are written to be "fun" most of the time); her Duchess has just the right amount of apparent sincerity over her malevolence to fool the rubes but also seem secure enough in herself to not pretend to be someone she's not. She perches right on the line between actually believing what she's saying and knowing what gives her some amount of power in this society as the best villains do.

The film is still uneven for long stretches - writer/director Alice Waddington pushes off the eventual pulling back of the fairy-tale trappings to reveal the horror everyone knows is there for a bit too long - but absolutely sticks the landing. Indeed, she does it well enough that many might wind up wishing that she had spent a bit more time on the stuff revealed in the last act, which not only does one of the best jobs of adding something to the flash-forward than most do but shows a story with bigger fish to fry than what has been at the forefront all along. It sets up a pretty decent hook for another movie (or, if one feels less generous, the one Waddington could have made instead).

Then again, I'm a guy, and the threat there may resonate more with me because it could seemingly be more aimed at me than the ones which specifically target young women. Still, part of what makes this movie worth a bit more attention than others like it is that it does target young women rather than just accommodate them. It does require a bit of a stretch to get where it does, but it's worth it.

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originally posted: 11/04/19 05:48:09
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2019 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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