A fairly non-existent release in the UK that snuck onto the scene only to get lost amongst Netflix’s ever growing catalogue, despite its star power in the form of Emma Roberts, Eiza González, Awkwafina, Danielle Macdonald and Milla Jovovich. Feature debut from director Alice Waddington, Uma (Roberts) is a teen girl who wakes up in an apparently idyllic school for young ladies to reform rebel girls, but a dark secret lies within its walls.
It’s been nearly 15 years since Roberts burst onto the scene as a young, fresh face taking on mermaids, private schools and murder mysteries and became complete catnip to teen movies and despite that decade and a half, it hasn’t stopped. Roberts has an undefinable quality that’s a combination of mystery, power and unpredictability, and Paradise Hills is another film that capitalises on those qualities, arguably it could have done so more strongly but regardless, it’s a good fit. Pairing her with Eiza González really brought out the intrigue in both of them, but again it could be said that more time could have been spent to emphasise their very clear romantic connection, their lingering eye contact and reciprocated stares are very hard to miss. It’s a blossoming friendship that had a lot of potential to add to the film but it’s done in a fairly rushed and shallow manner, giving you just enough for the story they’re trying to tell, without really trying too much to establish the connection. The same goes for Uma’s friendship with Chloe (Macdonald) and Yu (Awkwafina), there’s enough to get it across and a couple of nice moments to demonstrate their collective struggle but it remains relatively shallow. There also eisn’t really enough for these two talented supporting actresses to get their teeth into, given they’ve both established how much they’re capable of, they’re mostly pushed to the background until they become more useful to the plot.
From the get go, the setting of Paradise Hills gives away that the style is very much going to be indulgent, extravagant and ornamental, there’s emphasis on the more natural beauty, with the school drenched in flowers. It’s a classic misdirect to look pretty on the outside while what goes on behind the scenes is more than questionable, with the girls effectively imprisoned in this school come rehab come training camp. It certainly provides a fantastic aesthetic and constant bursts of colour, there’s never a drab moment. It’s something that of course, extends to the costumes, particularly the girls’ daily outfits that look as though a designer fittingly took inspiration from a strait-jacket, adding restraints and belts that may be merely decorative but their message is clear.
The story itself feels like its writers took very strong influence from film and literature, a little too much because there’s no real element of the story that feels original despite the concept actually being so. The initial concept feels very much á la Stepford Wives in its wish to re-programme their loved ones, adding in notes of A Clockwork Orange, Never Let Me Go, Beautiful Creatures and a dash of The Hunger Games’ District 1. The end result is interesting but feels completely in the spirit of teen dystopian futures that have come before it and will continue well after it, it lacks something to give it a stronger edge. The main issue is that after the successful combination of all those influences had created something to draw you in, instead of embracing the darkness that results, it completely chickens out and bows down to its teen audience providing an ending that’s entirely unsatisfying and a little cheap. The majority of that comes in the form of Milla Jovovich who seriously channels Glenn Close in Stepford Wives, and gives a great performance but her character has an odd mystical quality to her which completely undermines the more logical explanations that are provided for the events of the film. It feels entirely out of tune with the rest of the film and wanders into territory that’s entirely unbefitting the story they’ve put together, with its only purpose to try and fit what they thought an audience would want, to make sure they ruffled zero feathers and thereby cut its potential impression off at the knees.
Paradise Hills presents a story of a school that tries to hide psychological warfare underneath the beauty of nature but ultimately in typical teen fashion, it goes for spectacle rather than further exploring the dark psychological side of the story. It’s an impressive group of women to bring together but despite their individual talents, the orchestrated friendships feel simply set to hit the usual notes to push the story along. Waddington has shown here that she has some real potential, being still in the early stages of her career but it’s hidden under too many layers of influences from popular culture to really shine. It’s a shame that the film’s exceptional visual quality wasn’t reflected in its unfortunately average writing.