Synopsis: A mysterious boarding school perfectly reforms wayward girls to fit their surroundings’ exact desires.
Stars: Emma Roberts, Eiza Gonzalez, Awkwafina, Danielle Macdonald, Milla Jovovich, Jeremy Irvine
Director: Alice Waddington
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: When Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives was first published, in 1972 it came at a time when the women’s liberation movement was starting to gain greater momentum on a national level and the book served as a good reminder that conformity could be downright dangerous. Adapted as a chilling movie in 1975, the term “Stepford Wife” became a term used to describe a woman who appeared submissive to her spouse – not the nicest of terms. A 2004 remake tried hard to update the social satire for a different generation in the new millennium but studio tinkering and behind-the-scenes turmoil turned the film into a sour mess.
There’s a whiff of Stepford hanging over the new release Paradise Hills but don’t go looking for extreme similarities between the two because this is better than just another reimagining of that original text. Written by Nacho Vigalondo and Brian DeLeeuw working from a story by director Alice Waddington, it takes some ideas from Levin but largely cuts its own path in creating a creative narrative. Waddington, a Spanish artist making her feature directing debut, contributes a highly visual film that doesn’t compensate flair for plot. It’s artsty-fartsy but still takes time to connect the dots.
Kicking things off with a glam wedding designed to the hilt, Waddington takes some inspiration from Tarsem (The Cell) in her camera movements and attention to details in the foreground and background. It’s nuptials day for Uma (Emma Roberts, We’re the Millers) and while she smiles, greets her guests and sings a song for her new husband, something doesn’t seem quite right. Later that evening we’ll find out why but not before flashing back several months to Uma arriving at Paradise, an isolated island she’s been sent to for refusing to marry the man her parents set her up with. Independent and single-minded, she loves another (Jeremy Irvine, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) and wants to live free from the constraints of her family and societal norms.
Ruled by the Duchess (Milla Jovovich, Zoolander 2), Paradise is a tranquil finishing (more like re-finishing) school wealthy families can send their daughters to if they are in need of a little attitude adjustment. Maybe they need to lose weight like Chloe (Danielle Macdonald, The East), perhaps they struggle with anxiety disorder like Yu (Awkwafina, The Farewell) or, in the case of famous pop singer Amarna (Eiza Gonzalez, Welcome to Marwen), they could just need a break from mainstream culture. At first, the courses administered are designed to change their outward appearance but things take a darker turn when the inward feelings are targeted.
As the girls get closer they begin to see the island and its presiding Duchess have a devious plan for them all, one that’s been hidden in the depths of the labyrinthine estate they live in. When girls start disappearing and the Duchess begins to demonstrate some rather strange behavior that seems to have a direct impact on the island’s flora, Uma leads her new friends in a plan to escape before their nightmare stay in Paradise becomes permanent. Unable to stay awake through the night to explore what is being kept from them, Uma and Amarna team up to find a way to outwit the authority figures and get to the bottom of what seems to be coming for them.
While not as outright a horror film as I could see it tiptoeing around at times wanting to be, enough of the action is steeped in mystery that you can’t help but feel its occasional electric charge when it uncovers another clue. The solution is fairly obvious but the answer isn’t as simple as you’d expect. The performances are strong throughout, with Roberts continuing to hone her skills and improving with each role she takes on. I especially liked Jovovich playing a quasi-fairy tale queen with a sinister edge. If this had been made ten years ago, I could easily have seen Jovovich in the Roberts role. Though hampered by some limitations in budget and issues with follow-through of the intriguing ideas it introduces, it succeeds more than I anticipated it would.