Sundance 2020: Rebuilding Paradise Review

If You Build It, They Will Come?

Academy Award–winning director Ron Howard’s new documentary Rebuilding Paradise profiles the most devastating wildfire in California’s history. Howard takes a crisis that dominated news coverage less than two years ago, and he finds alarming new ways to put the disaster into perspective.

On November 8, 2018, a brush fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills hit at the worst time imaginable. A lack of rain and strong winds made the site ground zero for a raging inferno of an unrivalled scale. By the time the crisis ended, the fire killed 85 people and displaced thousands of others.

Rebuilding Paradise’s first fifteen minutes are as harrowing as anything you will ever see on film. Clips of blurry cellphone footage give us a first-hand look at what people experienced as they fled the danger zone. The footage looks like a scene out of a blockbuster disaster movie. We watch desperate people crying and praying for their lives as the fire closes in around them.

The film’s powerful opening sequence left me shaken and on the verge of tears.


The doc focuses on the survivors from the ravaged town of Paradise, California. Now refugees in their own state, the townsfolk rally around one another to put the pieces of their shattered lives back together. Rebuilding Paradise takes place throughout the year following the fire and checks in on the survivors every few months.

As much as the people of Paradise want to conquer their trauma, they can never get back what they lost. They can rebuild their homes and erect sturdier schools, but there’s one thing they can never get back: the town’s ebullient spirit. Some of the townspeople eventually do pick back up where they left off. But it’s evident that part of each of them will forever remain broken.

There are certain wounds that never fully heal. For some, the trauma hurts so bad that they can never return to Paradise. Others return home to find that their relationships with their spouses, family, and friends aren’t what they used to be. At some point, rebuilding doesn’t seem worth it and it’s easier to move on to something new.

Howard focuses on the small town of Paradise, but his film rings the alarm bell for the world to hear. He frames this tragedy as the harbinger of an inevitable series of global disasters. The kicker here is that the catastrophes are brought on by our very preventable climate change crisis.


We have the technology to relocate, rebuild, and repopulate cities, but lack the wisdom to stop the climate crisis dead in its tracks. The brilliance of Howard’s film is that it forces us to consider the intangible pieces of our souls that we lose in the rebuilding process. We are a sentimental species, afterall. You can reconstruct a house, but no forces on earth but love and time can make it feel like a home.