Paradise Hills [TADFF Review]

Fantasy films are some of my favourites but too often they focus on characters that I can’t connect to or even identify with. Too often the characters feel the same and never feel like I could be one of them. It’s not to say that I can’t enjoy fantasy or film of that genre but it’s not the same. That is why Alice Waddington’s Paradise Hills is such a breath of fresh air, a film that creates such a universe that you can forgive the flaws and story problem. In her directorial debut, Waddington creates a universe that feels complete, bringing a breath of fresh air in this genre that is too often dominated by men and their stories.

When Uma (Emma Roberts) wakes up on an island called Paradise with no memories of how she got there, she finds thrown into a world that she is not prepared for. Led by the Duchess (Milla Jonovich), Paradise takes young women and teaches them to be proper, emotionally healing those in need. But the fairy tale exterior is nothing but a front and something much more dangerous lurks behind the closed doors.

The subject of identity and who you are is one that is often talked about in fantasy genre films. But never truly in the way Paradise Hills does it. The film feels fresh and important, the story being one that you can’t help but relate too, especially has a queer woman. A queer person’s identity is something that is debated not only in public but also in their personal life. Your identity is often everything, a facet of yourself that a lot of people try to change over your life. Before our screening, a video of Waddington appeared and she explained that she wanted to create a film for “all the girls who grew up loving sci-fi and fantasy but never feeling like they saw themselves in it.” After watching it, I can easily say mission accomplish.

Living in a mix of the future and the past, Paradise Hills utilize the grand spectre of its premise to create a full world. Paired with great costume design and great set design, Waddington is able to create a film that you can forgive all of its flaws. Even when the film doesn’t make sense or some of the dialogue is a little bit stiff, the world-building of the film is so extraordinary that it becomes more than just a film. It’s a feeling that is created, it’s eery, weird and most of the time uncomfortable but it’s what the film needs. Paradise Hills feels like an event, a world that you can’t escape. The whole time watching the film, I couldn’t help but think that it would have been a perfect young adult book. But the fact that this is original is even better, it shows how ambitious filmmakers can still be and how when someone takes a chance a film can become a world. Paradise Hills’ world feels lived in, something that too often fantasy film can’t do. It’s a testament to Waddington’s ability to create and her ability as a director because she can get the most of not only the script but also the actresses.

The script might be awkward at times but the actresses make the most of it. Emma Roberts (American Horror Story) delivers a career-best performance, Mila Jonovich (Resident Evil series) finally plays a character with substance and doesn’t feel like a caricature, Eiza Gonzalez (Baby Driver) continues to prove that she is someone with a bright future in front of her, while Danielle Macdonald (Dumplin’) and Awkwafina (The Farewell) continue their great acting streak. It’s refreshing to see such a cast assemble in this genre of film, a mix of up and comer with veterans, all with their time to shine and characters that, even with limited screen time for some, feel complete. All have motivations that make sense, all have unique personalities and feel fully form, it’s refreshing to see such an assembly of actresses be used in clever ways.

Paradise Hills isn’t perfect, sometimes it’s a bit wonky and the dialogue doesn’t always work, but the world that is created makes up for everything. It’s a film that I was looking forward too and was scared that it would fall in the trap that too many films in this genre do, but it doesn’t. It exceeds your expectations and finds a way to create a story that is unique and fresh. Alice Waddington proves in her debut that she has a voice and will create great things in the future. With great performances, great set and costume and a world that feels full, Paradise Hills is able to not be a crash and burn because of Waddington’s steady hand. She is someone that we should look forward to watch grow as a filmmaker and let’s just hope she is given the chance too.