Published Oct 22, 2019Director Alice Waddington's feature debut, Paradise Hills, is the very definition of style over substance — but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The lush and uniquely realized world of Paradise Hills evokes a certain kind of dreamy unreality, where the narrative structure is less important than mood and tone. It's the kind of film beloved by artsy, angsty 17-year-old girls for its creepy aesthetic beauty, but with a genuine desire to give these young women fantastical cinematic inspiration. Without a fully realized narrative structure, Paradise Hills falls just short of greatness, but visually, it's an impressive thing to behold.
When Uma (Emma Roberts) mysteriously awakens in Paradise Hills, an exclusive boarding school that offers "emotional healing" to young society ladies, she learns that she's been sent there by her wealthy mother. Uma is engaged to be married to the blandly handsome Son (Arnaud Valois), much to Uma's displeasure, and this enforced stay at Paradise Hills is presumably to change Uma's mind about the proposal. Apart from already having a secret, lower-class beau (Jeremy Irvine), Uma can't help but be suspicious of Paradise Hills' fairy-tale exterior and its impassive matron Duchess (Milla Jovovich). Together with her new friends and fellow islanders Chloe (Danielle Macdonald), Yu (Awkwafina), and Amarna (Eiza González), Uma begins to uncover secrets that threaten the fates of everyone dwelling in Paradise Hills.
It's a bit of a flimsy plotline, one that doesn't stand confidently on a platform of its own. It does grapple with important themes about female agency and the vastly untenable expectations placed on women, but rapidly dovetails into twists and turns left unclear, and their absence is more confusing than thought-provoking. Every actress does an excellent job (especially a scene-stealing Jovovich, clearly relishing her role as an evil matriarch), but it often feels as though they're working through emotions that aren't always apparent in the script. But man, are those visuals stunning.
Intricate, weird, delicate and formidable at once, the sets and costuming in Paradise Hills are so delightfully bonkers that they distract from the loose plot threads. Part Picnic At Hanging Rock, part Stepford Wives, part goth Alice in Wonderland, the costumes are architectural in their ambition and scope, and given Waddington's past as a fashion photographer, its clear she has an eye for striking looks. Paradise Hills itself is a surreal, alternate seaside universe, painted in pinks and purples, full of Escher staircases, abundantly thorny rose bushes that may or may not be monsters, carousel holograms, full-face crowns and pulsating neon.
The film gets lost in aesthetic at times, especially in a somewhat sluggish middle act, but it picks up for a tense climax that regains some momentum. Paradise Hills definitely spins a muddled story, but it's hard to fault such an original piece of work (especially in an age of multiverse franchises and sequels upon sequels) that's trying so hard to be something special. And despite its faults, Paradise Hills really is. Giving young women the chance to see characters like themselves on screen having adventures and saving themselves in a fantastical universe is a truly valuable thing. Paradise Hills may be slight, but how many other fantasy films geared at young men are just as silly?