This year has seen wildly inventive movies that tackle class warfare head-on with precision, and from Jordan Peele’s Us to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, directors are able to provide biting social commentary within the confines of thrilling, unique experiences. Alice Waddington’s Paradise Hills is another to add to this year’s pile of high-concept movies that attempt to pry at privilege and tear down facades of wealth. Those class politics spend most of the film’s runtime situated deep beneath the glossy exterior, ultimately costing the film’s eventual “pay off” to be less-than-satisfying — but no less admirable in its ambitions.
Suddenly awake inside a room she has no memory of entering, Uma (Emma Roberts) tries to escape, only to realize that she has been admitted into a rehabilitation clinic located on a private island. This clinic, run by The Duchess (Milla Jovovich), is where women are sent to better themselves — whether that be physically, emotionally, or mentally. Paradise Hills avoids any subtlety in this respect, as it waves around the expensive price tag of undergoing such treatment, and frequently reminds Uma that she is throwing away wealth and notoriety by being despondent and reluctant to the rehabilitation process. Sent there by her mother, who hopes she will become accepting toward marrying a wealthy suitor upon finishing treatment, Uma’s only hope to avoid an arranged marriage is to escape from the island and hide away forever. To do this, she is aided by fellow residents in rehab (played by Eiza Gonzalez, Danielle Macdonald, and Awkwafina) while simultaneously uncovering the darker secrets hidden on the island.
How reality can fall short of meeting expectations is very obviously stated throughout Paradise Hills. As The Duchess attempts to maintain a facade of providing a better life for her patients, it is steadily apparent that something more sinister is at play with the rehabilitation. The set design and costumes are perhaps most emblematic of that, conveying a fairy tale aesthetic on a place tucked away from the growing disparity of the poor versus the wealthy on the mainland. The script, which is co-written by Nacho Vigalondo and Brian DeLeeuw, is perhaps one of the weaker parts here, despite the pedigree behind it. Mostly, it feels like the fantastic, Alice in Wonderland-like production design came first and foremost, with a screenplay that holds its cards close to its chest until the final act, where it unveils every machination working in the background.
It’s that reluctance to reveal plot points until closer to the end that makes Waddington’s decadent-looking film melt almost immediately upon impact. A stylish affair with broad characterizations barely latched onto by the actors’ inhabiting them, Paradise Hills is sumptuous to look at but quickly loses a lot of its appeal because there’s not much propelling the narrative forward other than time lapsing. The characters simply complain endlessly about their terrible situation — one that lacks any real severity, because the film rarely pries at its own dreamlike composure. The glaring exception is The Duchess, a character so perfectly captured by Milla Jovovich. As she tries to corral a group of reluctant girls to fall into line and accept treatment, there’s constantly an air of pettiness and hatred towards her clients. Jovovich is what keeps the sinister undercurrent of Paradise Hills present and subdued at the same time, something which the rest of the film seems resistant to attempting.
Comparable to a sugary dessert, Paradise Hills nails its first impression and immediately wears out its welcome. Upon finally revealing secrets, it becomes a full-blown Vigalondo film that elevates its initial plot to extraneous limits. While admirable in its attempt to provide a social commentary under the confines of a genre film, Paradise Hills only works as eye candy and a vehicle for Milla Jovovich to astound.
The 2019 Toronto After Dark festival runs from October 17-25.