Alice Waddington’s lush, imaginative directorial debut builds such a convincing dystopian world that you’d be forgiven for assuming it must be based on some intricate, Hunger Games-like series of YA novels. But Brian DeLeeuw and Nacho Vigalondo’s tale of privileged young women at a very unusual “finishing school” called Paradise Hills is a true original (Waddington also gets a screen story credit).
The story centers on Uma (Emma Roberts), a rebellious young woman who balks at marrying a man she doesn’t love, no matter how wealthy or well-connected in “Upper” society he might be. So her mother sends her to The Duchess (Milla Jovovich), who — along with perfectly-coiffed minions — runs a special school that’s guaranteed to take Upper girls who don’t quite fit in and turn them into perfect specimens of biddable womanhood. Uma meets Chloe (Danielle Macdonald), who’s cheerful but overweight; Yu (Awkwafina), who came from Lower stock and isn’t comfortable in Upper company; and Amarna (Eiza Gonzalez), a famous pop singer who dared to think for herself.
In matching white dresses that look like Elizabethan steampunk fashion, the girls sip tea and milk, do art projects, chatter inanely, and while away their days, always sleeping soundly at night (perhaps too soundly). As their friendship grows, they start to discover the unnerving truth about Paradise Hills — but will they be able to do anything before it’s too late?
Paradise Hills is a visual feast, from the lavish sets and rich cinematography to the over-the-top costumes (Uma’s wedding getup is truly unnerving). And the cast is uniformly strong, with each member of the main quartet establishing clear personalities and important roles in the narrative. Those who are connoisseurs of YA lit may figure out where the story is going, but that doesn’t mean that getting there isn’t trippy, stylish fun. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Susan Wloszczyna: Give ‘em the old razzle dazzle – especially when the script of your fabulous futuristic designer-label dystopia cherry-picks from a plethora of overtly familiar sources, including The Haidmaid’s Tale, Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, The Hunger Games and even Star Wars. That is the main attraction of Paradise Hills, where young women are girly-girly groomed into be willing brides to rich upper-class male twits with the consent of their families. The tropical setting might be bedecked in overt opulence, but it is essentially a concentration camp disguised as spa resort, complete with hologram propaganda, diet regimens, etiquette lessons, exercise routines, beauty treatments and knock-out potions. Director Alice Waddington loads up on the camp aspects of such a setting while offering an impressive cast including Emma Roberts as the new girl, Uma, who is just aching to make an escape. She is joined by the buoyant Danielle Macdonald (Dumplin’), the always fab Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians), and Eiza Gonzalez (Welcome to Marwen), a pop star with lesbian leanings who is sick of being forced to warble light-weight pop songs. Meanwhile, Mila Jovovich steals the show as the hat-loving Duchess, who is always adorned as if posing for a turn-of-the-19th-century portrait painter. Think of the film more as a frou-frou fashion show – the ladies flounce about in what look like First Communion dresses with leather bondage touches and Elizabethan collars — than stinging social commentary, and you will likely be entertained.
Marilyn Ferdinand: When Uma (Emma Roberts) wakes up in a lavishly furnished room and is soon confronted with two male attendants offering her refreshments, she asks, “Where am I?” Their answer: “Paradise.” Despite its luxurious, Edenic trappings, this paradise is actually a one-way ticket to hell—and not just because the girls who have been committed to this island retreat for stubborn young women are forced to wear frothy, corseted dresses. Perfect for the Halloween season, Paradise Hills offers a bloodthirsty monster, creepy surgeons, drugged drinks—the whole nine yards—as Uma slowly unravels the mystery of her therapeutic prison. Alice Waddington, directing her own story, borrows from other tales of horror, both ancient and contemporary. The twists she adds to familiar elements will keep you guessing through to the exciting, satisfying end. Milla Jovovich is a lovely villain, and Eiza González, Awkwafina, and Danielle Macdonald all turn in entertaining performances as Uma’s rebellious gal pals.
Pam Grady: The Stepford Wives meets The Handmaid’s Tale meets Satan’s School for Girls meets Fantasy Island with a little A Clockwork Orange and Little Shop of Horrors thrown in – that mash-up only hints at the insanity that is Paradise Hills. Emma Roberts plays Uma, a daughter of the “Uppers” (the filthy rich people as opposed to the “Lowers,” basically everyone else) who is sent to a luxurious island finishing school/internment camp (overseen by guards who all appear to come straight from Aryan Youth central casting) intended to help her get her head on straight after she refuses the proposal of a rapacious robber baron because she’s in love with member of the great unwashed. Among her roommates are Yu (Awkwafina), who suffers from acute anxiety, and Chloe (Danielle Macdonald), whose parents want her to lose weight. When the method of the school’s madness is ultimately revealed, it’s absolutely bonkers—really, this is a surefire method for weight loss? The plot is risible. Characterizations are thin. The eye-popping production design is opulent and overstuffed. A highlight is Milla Jovovich’s scenery-chomping performance as The Duchess, the school’s oh-so-polite, passive-aggressive, and soul-of-evil head mistress. It is all very sill, but taken on its own terms, Paradise Hills is a hoot.
Nikki Baughan: An off-kilter, steampunk blend of Disney, The Handmaids Tale and The Stepford Wives, writer/director Alice Waddington’s feature debut is entirely as intriguing as that sounds. A visually unique, narratively striking study of society’s attempts to control women, to mold them into an acceptable version of femininity, its determinedly fantastical elements are anchored by its strong themes and excellent performances. Read full review.
Leslie Combemale A first feature film by director Alice Waddington, Paradise Falls is an impressive entrance into the world of genre film. An award winner for her 2014 short, Disco Inferno, Waddington has brought a number of influences to bear in this fantastical, dystopian story that questions the value of innocence and the power of agency and collaboration in young women through a sort of feminist Grimm lens. Big names like Emma Roberts, Awkwafine and Danielle Macdonald populate a near future in which class distinctions entirely rule peoples’ destinies. These girls have found themselves on an island school for girls needing “correction”, at the mercy of its mysterious creepy headmistress. Little is what it seems, and mortal danger for these girls looms ever-present, though never spoken. Though the script and plot feel strung from an amalgam of films like the original The Stepford Wives, Logan’s Run, and The Hunger Games, with strong elements of Alice in Wonderland thrown in, the costumes, point of view, and production design point to potential one hopes Waddington will be able to unleash in the future.
Nell Minow: The trippy visuals, provocative ideas, and gifted cast make this twisted fairy tale worth watching.
Jennifer Merin Paradise Hills, a stunningly stylish and exquisitely shot fantasy scifi thriller about a young woman who’s been betrothed to a man she doesn’t love and is determined to escape that relationship — and the social conventions that put her in this soul-damaging situation — and marry the man she loves. In her first feature, director Alice Waddington beautifully crafts a futuristic environment with spatially intricate sets, lavish decor and sumptuous costumes — and many frightening dimensions. Her cast is an ensemble of heavy hitters. including Emma Roberts, Danielle McDonald, Awkwafina, Eiza González and Milla Jovovich, who give depth to this sometimes grim and somewhat Grimm-like fairytale and bring it to life.
Loren King Set in a dystopian, not so distant future, “Paradise Hills” is very much rooted in the present. It’s at once a darkly funny and grim satire about the ageless battle for control over women’s bodies and behavior. Young women who don’t conform to rigid codes of femininity are exiled to an island fortress that’s Club Med meets Marie Antoinette, saturated in poofy pink decor and virginal white costumes that nod to Barbarella and Picnic at Hanging Rock, all presided over by the Stepford-like Duchess (Milla Jovovich). Emma Roberts plays the feisty Uma, who’s been sent to the paradise/prison because she refuses to marry the rich guy of her mother’s dreams. She bonds with other sisters in captivity winningly played by Danielle Macdonald, Awkwafina and Eiza González who together hatch a plan to break out of the upside down, Alice in Wonderland meets The Handmaid’s Tale world. Director Alice Waddington has fun mixing sci-fi camp and social commentary; the look of the film is an impressive and original mash-up with a with a merry-go-round pony that whisks Uma into a nightmare of memory and formal dinners that are dispensed in bite-sized portions by chiseled male servants who also insist that the “guests” consume a milk-like drink with effects that echo Minnie’s chocolate mousse in Rosemary’s Baby. Waddington has delivered a confident, clever and provocative debut feature.
Sheila Roberts 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. Read full review.
Cate Marquis In the sci-fi fantasy Paradise Hills, director Alice Waddington explores the dark side of the fairy tale princess fantasy. In this mix of sci-fi and fairy tale, a young woman, Uma (Emma Roberts) is sent to a luxury rehab facility called Paradise by her family, who hope to persuade her to agree to an arranged marriage with a wealthy man, even though Uma is in love with someone else. At Paradise, Emma Roberts’ Uma is joined by actor/rapper Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians) and Danielle McDonald (Patti Cake$), two other women sent to Paradise by their families to be molded into a “perfect” feminine ideal. Just what the ideal may be is suggested by the lavish surrounding and costumes. In Paradise, everything is pink or white, ruffled and corseted, a dizzying, dazzling blend of Disney princess, constricting Victorian and Elizabethan inspired costumes, and frilly flourishes suggesting the 1950s, an era once called the “little Victorian age” for its reversal of women’s freedoms post-WWII. At first, Paradise seems like any luxury rehab but soon another side emerges. In this gilded cage, director Waddington explores questions of social expectations, class and individual freedom, as she takes these characters on a darker, scarier journey than the pretty surroundings suggest, a tale with some surprising twists and a satisfying ending
Title: Paradise Hills
Directors: Alice Waddington
Cast Emma Roberts, Danielle. MacDonald, :
Release Date: October 25, 2019
Running Time: 93 minutes
Screenwriter: Alice Waddington
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin