Film Review: ‘Paradise Hills’

If you’ve ever wanted a mashup of Disney princess movies and “The Stepford Wives” or imagined “The Handmaid’s Tale” as a swoony YA fantasy, “Paradise Hills” is absolutely the movie for you. This first feature by young Spanish commercials director Alice Waddington expands upon the template of her well-traveled 2015 short “Disco Inferno” in offering an ornate dream world of velvet-lined luxury and hidden menace. It’s a distinctive, accomplished vision in purely aesthetic terms — though this vague feminist parable is considerably less well thought-out on the levels of storytelling, character definition and suspense.

As a result, its message is one of general self-empowerment best experienced if you turn your brain off and just passively enjoy the spectacle. Opening on 18 U.S. screens 10 months after premiering in Sundance’s NEXT section, the English-language project will doubtfully make more than a modest impact theatrically, but should begin developing a cult following among mostly younger women via streaming soon after.

The splashy opening — not that much here doesn’t merit that adjective — has Emma Roberts’ heroine Uma somewhat dazedly moving through a production number of a lavish wedding, complete with her own music-video-style performance of a song celebrating the romance of subjugation. Then she’s ordered in her doll-like getup to the conjugal bed, where the rich, smirking groom (Arnaud Valois) she’d rejected not long ago notes admiringly, “It’s as if that girl never existed.”

Rewind two months, and a much more normal-looking Uma is waking up in some kind of subterranean chamber, with no idea where she is or how she got there. Trying to flee in vain, she discovers she’s on an island, and is dragged back to the feet of the Duchess (Milla Jovovich), overseer and sole female staff person at what she describes as a “center for emotional, holistic and sustained healing.” Or as Uma soon puts it, a “fascist boarding school.”

On the one hand, it’s an indulgent spa-like domain in which most of the tasks the young female “guests” are charged with other people would gladly pay for: light exercise classes, a personalized diet, psychotherapy, beauty makeovers, etc. On the other, few of them are here entirely willingly, and they are not free to leave as they please. They’re all moderately rebellious young women sent hither for a crash course in hopeful conformity by conservative parents in the “uppers” — we soon glean that society outside this luxe lockdown has degenerated into two rigid classes, with a peasant-like majority of “lowers” getting the raw end of the feudal-futurist deal. As in “The Handmaid’s Tale” (albeit with much more fancifully-fun clothing and decor), it seems the price of upward mobility for women is adherence to the strictest “traditional” gender roles.

Uma isn’t having it. Her roommates are slightly more ambivalent about acquiescence: Genial plus-sized Chloe (Danielle Macdonald) is “fine being me,” despite her rich parents’ desire to turn her into “some skinny pageant contestant like my sisters.” But she’s decided to play along and accept this eight-week exile as a vacation. Yu (Awkwafina), forever buried under hoodie and headphones, is in a difficult position, as her poor family’s fortunes depend on a successful promotion to the “uppers” that she doesn’t want. Then there’s willful Amarna (Eiza Gonzalez), a teen pop star shipped here because she wants to reject her manufactured image for creative self-determination — as well as, perhaps, a sexual identity that’s also less commercially viable.

“Paradise Hills” spends much time simply watching these young women gambol about their environment in outfits assembled largely from white chiffon and ruffles, with discreet kink-fetish details. That’s no punishment for the viewer, because those environs are often an eye-popping delight. From the all-pink luminous clamshells of their beds to de Chirico-like surreal archways and al fresco floral fantasias, this movie is a pastel riot of the design imagination, putting princessy motifs in a kind of steampunk-camp blender. Production designer Laia Colet and costume designer Alberto Varcarcel were clearly given very free rein, although it’s Waddington’s sensibility that unities their efforts in imaginative world-building rather than just frilly excess.

Still, there’s not a lot going on here beneath that stimulating surface. The screenplay is by a duo who’ve individually penned several well-rounded scripts, writer-director Nacho Vigalondo (“Colossal”) and Brian DeLeeuw (“Daniel Isn’t Real”), so it’s possible something got compromised or lost in the translation from page to screen.

Like the unfortunate, much-tampered-with “Stepford Wives” remake 15 years ago, “Paradise Hills” has a no-expense-spared look, yet its intended substance dissolves amid conflicting impulses toward feminism, dress-up fantasy, satire, horror and political allegory — none formulated enough to provide a secure sense of thematic or narrative destination. Nor does the movie achieve the fairy-tale Gothicism enough to allow suspension of ordinary logic. So the plot holes and odd leaps (notably a climactic one involving Jovovich) seem more sloppily arbitrary than forgivable as whimsy or nightmare.

Nonetheless, it’s a distinctive project whose simultaneous wallowing in and resistance to extreme gilded-cage femininity will appeal to many viewers. For them, repeat watches will only enhance the absorbing attention to extravagant, eccentric detail, while making it easier to overlook the weak narrative and less-than-complex characterizations.

Roberts makes a serviceably intelligent, sympathetic heroine, although she doesn’t bring much to a late demand for a secondary persona. Having so recently made strong impressions elsewhere, Macdonald and Awkwafina somewhat disappoint with competent but one-note turns in admittedly limited roles. Jovovich, got up in 40s-style glamour (and she’s one actor who might’ve done just as well in that era), enjoys her twinkling villainy — though again, in the end the script doesn’t give her quite enough to work with.

Waddington is clearly a unique talent, and in many ways “Paradise Hills” is a highly accomplished debut. But it will require careful selection of future material to ensure her gifts get applied to appropriate and sufficient narrative bedrock. Otherwise, they’ll risk seeming merely decorative — something this movie teeters on the brink of throughout.

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Film Review: 'Paradise Hills'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Oct. 21, 2019. (In Sundance Film Festival.) Running time: 95 MIN.

Production:(Spain-U.S.) A Samuel Goldwyn Films release of a Nostromo Pictures presentation of a Nostromo Pictures, Colina Paraiso production, with the participation of RTVE. Producers: Adrian Guerra, Nuria Valls.

Crew:Director: Alice Waddington. Screenplay: Nacho Vigalondo, Brian DeLeeuw; story: Alice Waddington, Sofia Cuenca. Camera (color, HD): Josu Inchaustegui. Editor: Guillermo de la Cal. Music: Lucas Vidal.

With:Emma Roberts, Danielle Macdonald, Awkwafina, Milla Jovovich, Jeremy Irvine, Arnaud Valois, Eiza Gonzalez, Nancy Jack. (English dialogue)

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