In five minutes, Paradise Hills does what some films take 30 to achieve. It’s not just the economy of the opening that’s striking, but its confidence. Paradise Hills is Alice Waddington’s feature directorial debut, and she doesn’t waste a second. Viewers hear a party before it’s seen — people laughing and coughing until somebody clinks a glass to speak. It’s a wedding, and the bride is about to sing “a very special love song.” From there, Waddington fully explores the scene, but even if she didn’t, the lyrics provide the most crucial information about this marriage: Uma (Emma Roberts) is trapped. To understand how she got there, the film goes back two months to the day Uma woke up in paradise.
According to the Duchess (Milla Jovovich), Paradise Hills is “a center for emotional healing. Holistic and sustained,” a rehab center suspiciously (or conveniently) located on an island where patients can be dropped off without their knowledge or consent. Uma is there because she doesn’t want to marry the rich guy her mother wants her to marry. Uma’s roommates, Chloe (Danielle Macdonald) and Yu (Awkwafina), are there for other reasons, but in all three cases, the thing that’s wrong with them is subjective. As adults, they should be getting to decide, for themselves, how they want to live, yet that’s the whole, twisted vision of Paradise Hills — girls in white dresses, skipping rope and picking flowers. It’s the dubious all-female boarding school from films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and Cracks, except everyone at Paradise Hills should’ve graduated years ago.
While the gender disparity is never addressed directly by Waddington (is there a Paradise Hills for boys?), all of the patients in the film are women, while the staff, besides the Duchess, are male, giving the central location some Handmaid’s Tale energy on top of the brainwashing and cult vibes. Costumes are used as an outward expression of what the characters are going through, with designer Alberto Valcárcel using materials that are both restrictive and feminine; clothing that could be worn at the Queen of Hearts’ court. The girls may be prompted towards wearing certain fashions, but a hair piece can become a cage if worn on the face instead of the head.
Perhaps most disturbing of all, though, is that while everything about the place sets off alarm bells, Uma has no proof. “Escape from what?” Uma’s new friend, Amarna (Eiza González) asks at one point. Besides the unceremonious way Uma was dumped there (the road to paradise was never paved with kidnapping), Brian DeLeeuw and Nacho Vigalondo’s screenplay holds off on providing anything more concrete about what the center’s long-term plans are. Ostensibly, Paradise Hills’ plans are short-term. During a first conversation, the Duchess assures Uma that she only has to stay two months, which means she won’t be stuck there indefinitely but also exhibits a great deal of confidence on their part. They can’t afford to work slowly, so why can’t Uma figure out what they’re up to?
When the answers do come, Paradise Hills becomes more familiar and softens the blow by continuing to deliver visually. In that sense, the film should be disappointing, but the performances (and the cinematic world) are so inventive that while the plot doesn’t take the same risks, one can’t help but wonder how Waddington might reinvigorate other science fiction narratives with her fairy tale stylings.
Rachel Bellwoar (@ziggystarlog) drinks a lot of Coca Cola. Her tastes fall somewhere between David Bowie and David Lynch and, when she’s not writing for Vague Visages, you can find her reviews at Comicon, Flickering Myth, That’s Not Current and Diabolique Magazine.