Set sometime in the near future, PARADISE HILLS tells the story of Uma (Emma Roberts, TV’s AMERICAN HORROR STORY), who has just married a very wealthy man, making her mother very happy. Two months earlier though, Uma was dead set against the marriage and was in love with another man who is poor. That’s when her mother sent her to an idyllic re-education facility located on a remote island in the middle of nowhere where the patients – all young woman who aren’t meeting their families’ expectations – dress in virginal white steampunk uniforms, eat the perfect amounts of wholesome food, practice yoga and undergo self-assessment therapy sessions under the watchful eyes of the facility’s headmistress, known as The Duchess (Milla Jovovich, the RESIDENT EVIL franchise). (She gets to wear an awful lot of red.) While Uma bonds with her roommates, the overweight Chloe (Danielle Macdonald, DUMPLIN’; TV’s UNBELIEVABLE) and the orphaned Yu (Awkwafina, CRAZY RICH ASIANS; OCEAN’S EIGHT), it’s pop diva and possible lesbian Amarna (Eiza Gonzalez, BABY DRIVER) who becomes her confidante. While the other patients at the facility all seem to be accepting of their treatment, Uma and Amarna are not and they decide to escape. The Duchess and her staff, though, don’t make it easy for them especially when Uma uncovers something insidious going on behind the scenes.
It’s hard to fault a film that tries to be something greater than it is so hats off to Spanish director Alice Waddington for bravely taking on a sci-fi story for her first film. Unfortunately, if she had paid as much attention to the story by Nacho Vigalondo (COLOSSAL) and Brian DeLeeuw as she did to the costume and set design, she may have had a hit on her hands. Although PARADISE HILLS isn’t a hot mess, as one of my colleagues likes to call some films, it isn’t entirely original as it contains elements of The Stepford Wives, The Handmaid’s Tale and about a half dozen YA dystopian novels that have come out in the past ten years. As a result, it’s just not that compelling to watch and you can easily figure out where the story is going long before it gets there. I haven’t been this uninvested in a movie’s characters in a very long time. The only things that save the film from being a snoozefest are the costumes, which look like Vivienne Westwood taking on Lewis Carroll, and the set design, which is at times sumptuous and at other times austere.
It’s been said by many that ALICE IN WONDERLAND is great to watch when you’re stoned. Maybe this film is the same. Straight up sober though, not so interesting. Save it for a rainy day when you’ve got nothing else to watch.
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