Paradise Hills (Alice Waddington, 2019) 2 out of 4 stars.
Filled with impressive production design, Paradise Hills, from director Alice Waddington (making her feature debut), is also rife with narrative muddle. Characters change motivations without reason, the big third-act reveal is visible from far away, and the script introduces a strange supernatural element in its climax. Despite these flaws, however, the film is still watchable for much of its length, even if it never quite lives up to the promise of its respectable cast.
Emma Roberts (Palo Alto) stars as Uma, whom we meet on her wedding night during an ornate ball in her honor, the guests dressed in what could be Gilded Age garb (though a flying car will soon set us straight on the retro-futurist milieu). “Your husband shouldn’t be kept waiting,” states an older woman (possibly her mother-in-law). Soon enough, she is in the bridal bed, said man exclaiming, as he embraces her, ““That place works miracles. You could be so difficult, but now it’s as if that girl never existed.” Cut to two months earlier.
In that past, Uma wakes up on what turns out to be an island resort managed by a very odd (possibly not human?) Milla Jovovich (Cymbeline), Uma has been sent there by her mother for a makeover, mostly of the internal variety. Joined in reformatory misery by Awkwafina (The Farewell), Eiza González (Baby Driver) and Danielle Macdonald (Dumplin’), Uma struggles to determine just what plans are in store for her, beyond making her accept the marriage proposal from a man she despises. Everyone is there for a reason, all because they don’t fit the familial or societal mode prescribed for them. It’s a restrictive world, not too many years ahead of our present, perhaps.
We learn that there are “uppers” and “lowers” (as in class), and woe betide the one who crosses the line. The science fiction is sparsely sketched, but that’s okay, because the more exposition the actors spout, the less interesting the film becomes. Less is more, though as far as costumes and sets, the opposite is true. Beautiful and fascinating to look at, Paradise Hills holds our visual interest, throughout. Unfortunately, with its obvious comparisons to The Stepford Wives, it holds few surprises, except for ones that make very little sense. I did enjoy the unexpected twist at the very end, but it was too little, too late. Still, for a first movie, it is far from a total loss, and should Waddington return to the screen again, I’ll be more than happy to watch her sophomore effort.