Alice Waddington’s Paradise Hills brings pretty, feminine sci-fi/fantasy to Toronto After Dark.
Uma (Emma Roberts) is a young woman who wakes up in a mysterious treatment facility known as Paradise Hills. Blooming flowers, pretty dresses, yoga and makeovers are meant to turn bad girls into new compliant, practical and polite versions that will please their parents. Uma gets sent for treatment by her mother to change her mind about marrying a handsome, wealthy suitor who can get her family out of debt. While at Paradise Hills Uma meets fellow outcasts Yu (Awkwafina), who has been sent to fix her crippling anxiety, and Chloe (Danielle Macdonald), whose parents hope she’ll return looking like her beauty pageant sister.
After forming a bond with a pop star named Amarna (Eiza Gonzalez), Uma begins to realize the facility isn’t what it appears to be and that the headmistress (Milla Jovovich) has some cracks in her pretty, polished veneer.
In a pre-recorded introduction for the Toronto audience, Waddington stated she wanted to make a sci-fi/fantasy movie for pre-teen girls. Writing as someone who was once a pre-teen girl, she’s wholly succeeded in delivering a feminine fantasy world that definitely has something sinister going on under the rose bushes.
Paradise Hills may not win over hardcore genre fans, but its greatest achievement may be introducing new, younger fans to the world of sci-fi and fantasy, especially girls. Likely the most beautiful film to play Toronto After Dark, Paradise Hills has a lot for the tween set going for it: pretty pink curtains, abundant rose gardens, gauzy white dresses, beauty makeovers complete with pink hair dye, and carousel horses. And, for girls (and guys) who just aren’t into that stuff, there’s plenty of darkness simmering under the surface.
By no means let the film’s pretty exterior fool you into thinking this is a movie for kids, or one that has no place in a festival line-up next to zombies and exorcisms.
There are some unnerving tricks at play here that should please those weaned on Labyrinth and The Never Ending Story. It’s no surprise that Spanish Timecrimes and Colossal writer-director Nacho Vigalondo is a co-writer of the film, given the story’s twists and turns, which you may be able to see coming but are nevertheless enjoyable in execution.
The film’s main trio of ladies – Roberts, MacDonald and Awkwafina – are great as the socially-awkward outcasts of their families, forging new bonds of friendship on their Paradise Hills retreat. Roberts, who rarely gets the credit she deserves as an actress, is perfectly cast as the angry girl who just doesn’t want to be forced into marriage, with Macdonald as likable as always. And while the material may not be as much as a dramatic stretch for Awkwafina who dazzled earlier this year in The Farewell, she too is well-cast as the sullen Yu.
And then there’s the men, or lack thereof. The men are the subservient to the women, lack personality and even names for the most part, and are at the beck and call of the facility’s head honcho, played with ice queen supremacy by Jovovich.
Making its debut at Sundance earlier this year, Paradise Hills will open in theatres on October 25, and get a digital release on November 1.
Check out all of our TADFF 2019 coverage here.