Alice Waddington’s directorial debut Paradise Hills is an ambitious but messy near-future dystopia tale that feels like a watered-down Hunger Games or a middling piece of episodic television.
Written by Brian DeLeeuw and Nacho Viaglondo, the storyline abandons its own rules and culminates in a finale that, with even the most cursory reflection, seems dismissive of any of the stronger ideas posited earlier.
The film begins with Uma (Emma Roberts) engaged in a courtly dance at a resplendent wedding. Evoking the style of pre-revolution France, the heightened style is an invitation into a world that radically divides rich from poor, where the trappings and ostentations of the upper class are made ridiculous by their flourishes.
We then flash back a few months to a very different Uma rebelling against being committed into a kind of boarding school/health retreat dubbed Paradise Hills. As overseen by the formidable Duchess (Milla Jovovich), Uma is introduced to fellow residents (Danielle Macdonald, Awkwafina, Eliza Gonzalez) who are there to be reshaped to better fit in with family expectations.
The dark side of “finishing school” is rich for exploration, and during its first half the film sets a sinister mood. Not everything in Paradise is as it seems (as if the name didn’t foreshadow that from the outset), but as things get creepier and the lies are exposed, it quickly descends into something more silly than profound.
As the finale reaches a crescendo, the politics of the story becomes even more vague. What changes are being made to these girls? What privileges are undercut? Are we supposed to care about who survives and who doesn’t? It’s frustrating, as if the entire edifice collapses under its own pretentions. Despite the generally strong cast, many of the performers float through the film rather than connect. Jovovich is particularly out of her element..
In the end, Paradise Hills is a climb not worth taking, and a missed opportunity to make something far more engaging out of this premise.