WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
Uma is a young woman who wakes up in an apparently idyllic reform school for young ladies. But a dark secret lies within its walls.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Never fully lived up to your parents' expectations? At least you're not a woman trapped in the surreal world of Paradise Hills, a visual masterpiece that blends sci-fi, fantasy and a tiny dash of horror to showcase just how terrible parents could be. It transforms the "pretty and pink" sterility of toxic femininity into a grotesque spectacle of facades where nothing is real – which unfortunately can make your head hurt.
Uma (Emma Roberts) wakes up in some Eden-like finishing school for women on an island headed up by the flawless Duchess (Milla Jovovich). In truth, it aims to mould these women into the image their families want for them, whether they like it or not. At first, its indoctrination techniques appear to be harmless, but the longer Uma and her friends stay, the more they start seeing the cracks in the facade, revealing the school's darker agenda.
It's an odd little Spanish-produced film, with surprisingly big names like Emma Roberts, Awkwafina, Milla Jovovich and Danielle Macdonald, that played at Sundance last year before making its way to Showmax. Helmed by a group of such talented actors, their roles don't ask much of them and they could probably do it in their sleep. They still give their performances the full attention and probably had the best time playing dress-up, especially Jovovich as the effervescent Duchess with her red carpet-worthy gowns.
As for the story, it has an awkward fit into the young adult dystopian genre, where all we really know about the world outside the island is that it's divided into an extreme class system with Uppers and Lowers. Not fitting into society's standards appear to be a severe transgression for the Uppers, specifically for women, and that theme of oppression runs concurrently throughout the film.
In an effort to keep the audience guessing, however, the plot ends up twisting itself into a convoluted mess where no rules for this universe are set up and anything goes, it seems. I was on board for the first big reveal, with its quick jab at classism and the privileges that come with it, but then it took a detour into something that made no sense with little explanation or backstory. It kind of soured the last bit of the film and just left me a bit angry at the writers for shoehorning what was a gratuitous scene for the sake of the costume design fantasies of the director and was not in the best interest of the audience.
But that's why Spanish director Alice Waddington – also a costume designer – really made this film. It has the visual extravaganza of some of the most stunning costumes and set designs you will ever witness. It took precedence over the plot, which was written with this vision in mind from the get-go. The sheer whiteness of everything was a great visual metaphor for the traditional virginal expectations of women as obedient, juxtaposed with the red and pink colours of the shady Duchess, luring her victims in with beauty, blinding them to the thorns that prick them.
Waddington's imagination is unleashed in Paradise Hills and entices the senses just enough to distract you from the many loose ends tripping up the plot. If fashion and costume artistry tickle your fancy, the film is a must-watch for its incredible attention to detail, ornate designs and the delicate metaphors woven into its threads.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: