Throughout the centuries there’s been one constant: women get the short-end of everything. They’re expected to be virginal, yet sexual; wise, yet naïve; knowledgeable, yet silent. They are instructed through social norms on how to comport themselves publicly and privately. It all begins with what we tell woman as children, particularly through the use of fairytales: be beautiful, but not vain; be smart, but not boastful; be available, but only to those who desire you. Through the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White, and others, young women are brought up thinking that they are a commodity whose value is determined by the men in their lives, each waiting to be rescued and, often, taken advantage of in the meantime. The latest Samuel Goldwyn Films science-fiction thriller Paradise Hills upends these notions even as its characters are cradled within them, eviscerating the inspirational tales from within. For a feature film directorial debut, Alice Waddington (Disco Inferno) comes out swinging, demolishing the chains of patriarchy along the way.
Uma (Emma Roberts) is the rebellious daughter of an upper class family. After refusing a marriage proposal from a wealthy suitor, Uma’s sent to Paradise Hills, a remote island rehabilitation center for the rich and well-to-do run by the enigmatic Duchess (Milla Jovovich). Though the treatments Uma engages in involve mirror therapy, yoga, and psychological analysis, each is non-invasive or non-violent in nature. However, the longer she stays, the more Uma suspects that the overly congenial Duchess and vaguely ominous staff are hiding something. Uma, her roommates Chloe (Danielle Macdonald) and Yu (Awkwafina), and fellow patient Amarna (Eiza Gonzalez) develop a plan to escape the island before they each endure their final treatment.
Though Paradise Hills is Waddington’s first feature film, her experience writing and directing two short films clearly paid off as nothing on screen feels anything less than precise and purposeful. A fashion creative and photographer, Waddington knows how to set a scene to evoke, not just an aesthetic, but the engrained associations that come with it. The opening sequence features a brief, yet elaborate wedding sequence and mini-musical number in a ballroom filled to the brim with affluence. Colors are various shades of red and purple, the guests are decked out akin to 17th century revelers, make-up is tasteful, though indulgent, and guards in black armor line the walls. If not for the car we’re shown hovering outside, there’d be an expectation that Paradise Hills is a traditional period piece. In this one scene, social mores are expressed clearly: a wife is property to all but herself. This is where things get interesting as what’s slowly revealed is more of a steampunk rocker, where the colors aren’t just for show but are representative of the mores in conflict. This is wonderfully represented in the following sequence when the audience is show Uma’s first moments on the island. Breaking free from her introductory suite, she runs down a red and white rose-lined walkway (Alice in Wonderland anyone?), past an M.C. Escher-like staircase (immediately evoking Labyrinth), before running onto a beach when she meets Amarna. The visual references communicate the type of feminine coding audiences expect: a girl lost, in need of rescue from a land far from her own. She is not a heroine, but a damsel. This allusion to multiple fairytales aside, the interaction between Uma and Amarna is meant to trigger another expected social response: woman against woman. Rather than trying to help Uma, Amarna turns her in, creating a tempestuous relationship as a result. However, unlike stories filtered through the male gaze, Paradise Hills quickly disintegrates the competition elements you’d expect for something deeper and more supportive. This is not to suggest that there doesn’t remain an air of suspicion at times of who to trust. Paradise Hills is a sci-fi thriller after all. It’s just that the script makes quick work to dispel the conventional disputes in favor of something more original.
It’s interesting to note that while the story of Paradise Hills originated with Waddington herself and Sofia Cuenca, the script is from Brian DeLeeuw (Daniel Isn’t Real) and Nacho Vigalondo (Colossal). Both screenwriters display incredible depth and understanding of the machine in which women find themselves either working with or against each day. Some women wear make-up, some don’t. Each are personal choices that they presumably make for themselves, except they don’t. The obvious influences are commercial, with marketers trying to convince everyone of the latest fads and trends in colors, creams, and materials. The less obvious ones come from the social norms woman endure all the time. The variety of characters and how they’re treated exemplify this in one early scene when each of the three new arrivals (Uma, Chloe, and Yu) are taken for a spa treatment. One girl has her hair bleached and dyed, another is given curls, and the last is striped of the color already present. Each are given facials of varying types and are given clothes of all white, which look like a combination of a warrior’s armor and a doll’s corset. Each girl is made to look exactly how their societies wish them to look, yet each is dressed the same. There is no identity but the one which is placed upon them. There is no agency in Paradise Hills, only the illusion crafted by society. The allegorical nature of the physical representation of the characters, as well as the island, extends to communicate the duel nature of society — masculine vs. feminine, rich vs. poor, the accepting and the rebellious — yet, no matter what, it all comes back to the lack of agency the women in the story possess. Even Duchess seems to be tugging on the chain of a different master despite being the headmistress for the center.
Part of what makes Paradise Hills work is the focus on the female experience over the male gaze. None of the actors are sexualized in any specific way. It’s left up to the design of the clothes, living quarters, and other aspects to convey the stereotypical feminine qualities men expect. What the actors do in their roles, however, is what helps to transcend them beyond the fairytale tropes. Roberts infuses Uma with a strength and vulnerability so that whether her character fights or trusts, the choices come naturally and are never forced. This matters because, as our introduction to Paradise Hills, she’s told she’s there for behavioral reprogramming. It’s her disagreeable attitude that’s resulted in her being placed here by her mother and potential suitor, a trait of a woman who doesn’t understand her place within the patriarchy. Chloe, Yu, and Amarna are there for similar reprogramming and Macdonald, Awkwafina, and Gonzalez imbue their respective characters with similar complexities, though in different ways. Without getting into spoiler territory, Paradise Hills refuses to make the individual characters tropes or stereotypes, something which each actress does with aplomb. This makes their scenes connect with the audience far more emotionally than if played as coded personas. The one performance that stands out most is Jovovich’s. An accomplished actor in a variety of genres, her take on Duchess is parasitic, seeing her only path to thrive as being through the belittlement of her own gender. The character itself is incredibly toxic and Jovovich plays her beautifully, conveying dialogue in a completely genial fashion, which just so happens to drip with malice.
The quibbles that can be made around Paradise Hills are entirely justified. There’s a romantic aspect which requires more than a leap of faith to go along with due to the forced perspective and 95-minute runtime. Whether in an effort to maintain a momentum which never slows or to retain focus on Uma, the inclusion of this aspect doesn’t work as well within the whole to create the emotional heft it seeks. Then there’s also Duchess, whose truth beyond keeping Paradise Hills running is a tad confusing if one approaches it from a strictly literal perspective. Waddington’s story almost requires a certain degree of rationality be left at the door in order to better understand the themes within, which isn’t much of a surprise with Vigalondo partially at the wheel and a thank you to writers/directors Edgar Wright and Guillermo del Toro in the credits. For an audience receptive to her message and intent, Paradise Hills is an empowering weapon for femininity as it seeks to devitalize toxic masculinity and uplift us all with a reminder that women don’t come in one shape or size, that they don’t need to look any one way, that they are all fighting struggles which can’t be seen at the dermal layer, and, most importantly, that the best teller of a story is ourselves. As Uma and her friends quest for their stories, so can anyone else.
In select theaters beginning October 25th, 2019.
Available on VOD and digital November 1st, 2019.
For more information on Paradise Hills, visit the official Samuel Goldwyn website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.