Paradise Hills (2019)

A young woman is sent to a reform school on a paradisiac island when she does not agree to marry the man she is meant for. There she meets other young women sent to change their attitudes and minds.

Written by Brian DeLeeuw, Nacho Vigalondo, and Alice Waddington with Waddington directing, Paradise Hills is a fairytale for the modern world with a world created on the island and outside of it, two distinct worlds that are not quite like ours, but with many close enough situations and set-ups to ground the story. The characters have each their own personalities and struggles having been created as layered young ladies. The background characters and the majority of the male characters seem to only be there as extras to add to the female characters’ stories and arcs even as the lead is sent to the island to get her more into her prospective husband. The story is about her and the others on the island and absolutely not about him. This is very much a story about female characters and their struggles, dreams, and hopes. The fact it is put as a fairytale helps bring it home for all the folks having grown up on such stories and helps gives it a wider berth of creativity. The film makes great use of the characters and settings, giving the viewer a complete world to get immersed into as they watch the story develop.

The lead in this fairytale is played by Emma Roberts as Uma who does great work taking the character, making her hers and creating a fully fleshed being. Her work is probably some of the best seen in a long time as she’s hit or miss for this reviewer, here she is definitely a hit and this might just be her best work. She takes her part and makes it memorable, gives her substance, and builds a layered character that is interesting to watch and a good central being for the fairytale developing along with the film. Playing her co-students, or co-patients, are Danielle Macdonald as Chloe, Awkwafina as Yu, and Eiza González as Amarna. The first is a great and gives a performance more than worthy of the material. The second is sensitive and perfect. She has a plight that is shown as more than just external, the viewer can tell that she has internalized the part and truly made it hers; steeling most the scenes she is in. The third is delightful as usual, giving great work and a performance that is two folds, giving her character something truly special. These ladies put together create a special group showing the bonds of female friendship and how when women support each other, they can truly create something special. Playing the lady running the place, known as The Duchess is Mila Jovovich who is clearly enjoying playing the possibly evil queen of the castle. Her performance is fun and a bit extra, giving the fairytale that layer of fun that is interesting to watch unfold. These ladies are great and they truly bring the film together in a way that makes it a perfect girls’ night film without being rowdy or raunchy.

Another aspect of Paradise Hills that truly set it apart is the look of everything. The film has a cohesive look from décor to costumes to images to effects. Everything is carefully calculated and created to all work together. The art department does an amazing job creating this idyllic island with a spa-like castle of sorts that houses the girls and their treatments. The setting is beautiful and so well-done that it would be amazing to be able to go visit the location if everything were still in place. The costumes by Alberto Valcárcel use inspiration from many periods in history and are all white, helping create a world where everything is being sanitized or brought an agreeable societal look. The fact that the design is fun while being even for most of the girls is something that fits the story in a great way, adding extra visual elements to everything. The hair that goes with these looks is perfect for each character and their situation. There is a bit of personality in each while some of their self is being generalized. There is something carefully designed for each of the character. Hair designer Jesús Martos and hair stylist Patricia Reyes bring these to life marvelously well. The make-up looks are treated about the same and executed under make up department head Caitlin Acheson with a great result on screen. All the looks for each character are complete and add to the fairytale feeling of everything.

On top of these, the cinematography by Josu Inchaustegui is something special. The framing and focus are done in ways that create almost tableaux in some of the scenes and let the characters take over in others. Their work is something done with talent and wisdom of imagery and how to bring it all to the screen. Things are done carefully and purposefully in every frame, giving the film that feeling of being its very own world. The editing by Guillermo de la Cal brings it all together, giving the images their time to develop and move, cutting when needed and not a second before. The work from these two goes together hand in hand in a beautiful way.

In Paradise Hills, the film is all about the ladies, with male characters being given parts that are oftentimes what women get in films. Here the ladies are strong and in charge with males being more subservient or villains, switching the usual tropes of cinema and a lot of fairytales. This film is one of those that will make top of the year lists this year and next when people catch up with it. It should be seen on a big screen as it deserves, but can also be enjoyed easily on a smaller screen at home. Watching it on a phone, tablet, or computer screen would be making it a disservice as this film should be seen on as a big a screen as can be to truly enjoy the imagery and all the art and creative effort put behind it. This is the kind of film where writing, directing, acting, and all other aspects of filmmaking come together to create a truly strong fairytale and visual candy.