Paradise Hills, Spanish filmmaker Alice Waddington’s feature debut, is a stylish fantasy sci-fi thriller and a visual delight that does not disappoint. Set in a futuristic environment, the film’s ensemble cast includes Emma Roberts, Milla Jovovich, Danielle Macdonald, Awkwafina and Eiza Gonzalez. When Uma’s (Roberts) socially ambitious family forces her into an arranged marriage to a wealthy young man she has no affection for, the outspoken young teenager decides to defy social conventions in order to marry the man she truly loves.
Her family decides otherwise and sends her to a reform school for rebellious young girls on a remote yet seemingly idyllic island run by an enigmatic woman known only as The Duchess (Jovovich). Here, Uma will be reprogrammed to embrace her soul crushing fate, or else, as she learns later, suffer unimaginable consequences. The Duchess advises Uma she has a bright future ahead if only she would conform. Uma sets out to explore her lush new surroundings where she befriends fellow rebels Chloe (Macdonald), Yu (Awkwafina), and Amarna (Gonzalez). The deeper Uma digs, the more she discovers that the island that passes for an enlightened center for emotional healing is actually a very dark, dystopian world with sinister secrets. Escape becomes Uma’s top priority before it’s too late.
This feminist fable, written for the screen by Waddington in collaboration with Brian DeLeeuw and Nacho Vigalondo, is a promising first feature in need of a stronger premise. More thought should have gone into crafting the story so that audiences could better understand and appreciate the sinister world the filmmakers wish to convey. The lack of thematic clarity, weakly drawn characters, and odd twists and turns, especially in the third act, result in a confusing, lackluster story without any of the fear and danger you would expect to find. That said, the cinematography, costumes and production design are beautifully conceived and executed. Paradise Hills was shot on location in the Canary Islands and features impressive work by DP Josu Inchaustegui, production designer Laia Colet, set decorator Sol Saban, costume designer Alberto Valcarcel and concept artist Joan Arti. I look forward to seeing more of Waddington’s visually stunning work.