As a teenager, my favorite things to read were Young Adult fantasy and science fiction novels. And, to be perfectly honest, a lot of what I chose to read 110% had to do with the aesthetic of a book cover. It didn’t matter what the plot was. If the cover was pretty, I’d buy it and then plow right into its contents to see whether the actual novel reflected the visual world that was illustrated on the cover. This naturally led to a desire to see the same visual elements that initially drew me into the YA fantasy and sci-fi genre in a movie format. Fortunately, while I was in high school, YA dystopian and sci-fi films were all the rage. But something stood out. The majority of them stuck to one central dark color palette. While aesthetically it was beautiful to look at the first couple of times, it soon came to personify the majority of YA sci-fi oriented films and I knew there was much more to the genre than what was being represented on screen. Fortunately, with the arrival of Alice Waddington’s PARADISE HILLS, we now have a refreshing new installment to the YA sci-fi genre that broadens the perspective of what dystopia can look like.
The majority of the film takes place at an island rehabilitation institution known as PARADISE HILLS, where there are waitlists for young women to be admitted by their wealthy families in order to be shaped into society’s image. All women who are admitted are dressed in virginal white, evoking an image of princesses waiting to be groomed into queens. Every aspect of their lives is controlled in order to fix whatever ill they seek to have corrected during their time inside the rehabilitation center. Even if you maintain some semblance of resistance, eventually you will gradually break down and take in whatever lessons you are meant to learn as a part of your training. If this doesn’t already have your hair standing on end, once the veil is lifted and secrets are revealed about the institution, it becomes a race against time for our main characters to find their way off the island or risk being lost forever.
The true highlight of the film is in both the visual imagery that Waddington and cinematographer Josu Inchausteguil paints for their viewers, which is helped by the impeccable, drool-worthy costume designs by Alberto Valcárcel. Look. I can’t say this enough, but I am so incredibly happy to see a dystopian film that isn’t completely absent of color (The Giver or even certain episodes of “Black Mirror” are the most prominent examples) or just holds an overabundance of dark, earthy tones with dark lighting like we’ve seen in The Hunger Games or Maze Runner franchises. On an island setting that is supposed to reflect its name, PARADISE HILLS is designed to convey a sense of fantasy and beauty that aims to break down the walls that the girls have and lure them into a false sense of security. What is there to fear in a place meant to essentially re-program its occupants when it looks as otherworldly as this? The usage of visuals to convey the main character Uma’s journey into figuring out the mystery of the place is reflected, especially once we reach the third act which takes the girls into hidden areas that they had never been able to access before. It is then that the visuals reflect that perhaps the island isn’t the paradise that it had been touted to be. And I like how the visuals really come to reflect that.
There are a couple of issues that keep the film from being completely perfect. To start off, the characters and the performances from the actors in PARADISE HILLS were a little all over the place. Emma Roberts’ performance as Uma was fairly hard to invest in at times due to the unevenness. Granted, the character of Uma herself is arguably not as interesting as she could have been for the main character in comparison to the supporting cast of characters Uma encounters while on the island. In fact, I found myself more invested in wanting to know more about Amarna (Eiza González), Chloe (Danielle Macdonald), and Yu (Awkwafina) because their stories carried a complexity that I felt was missing from Uma’s storyline. With regard to Milla Jovovich‘s The Duchess, I felt that she could have been better utilized so that when the audience did find out about what her character was, it would have more of an impact. Instead, because we only really got brief tidbits of the character’s inclusion into the story, when the reveal happens, it just leaves a person confused.
The other issue was the overall plot. Granted, in the Young Adult fiction genres, it is immensely difficult to stray from the formulas that occupy the YA realm. However, in PARADISE HILLS, there were elements that had so much potential that it was a little disappointing that there was no further explanation. For example, there was mentioning of the “superiors” versus the “inferiors”, which was a whole class dichotomy that I felt could have made for a more hook-grabbing plot than the focus on Uma. This felt especially so when Uma and the girls start to dive deeper into the forbidden parts of the island and learn the secret behind the rehabilitation practices on the island. Then there was the inclusion of the plot concerning Uma’s father’s death, with it carrying nefarious intentions. I found myself wanting to know more about that rather than the romance she was having with an “inferior” boy that ended up really not having much rememberable time in the plot. Basically, there was so much introduced that felt like a footnote that also seemed more intriguing than the plot focus on Uma getting off the island. However, this is generally a common issue in YA fantasy/sci-fi literature, so it’s not a death knell that this happened with this film. So, I’m not holding it against Waddington or co-writer Nacho Vigalondo for the writing. These are just notes that I think might be something to explore in future projects.
Ultimately, PARADISE HILLS is a stunningly gorgeous sight for the eyes, reflecting a refreshing color palette seldom seen in the YA dystopian film genre. From the colors to the costume design, this film is essentially a fucked-up fairytale. While the plot isn’t anything groundbreaking and the third act is a little rough, the film could be best described as a diamond in the rough. With just a bit more pressure and polish, it could really sparkle. However, regardless of the third act, Alice Waddington has created a film that will appeal to all the people like me who were drawn to those pretty YA book covers of yore. And, for that, I thank them from the bottom of my heart.
PARADISE HILLS opens in theaters tomorrow.
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