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Sundance Review: ‘Paradise Hills’ proves “Perfection is an illusion, not a reality”

Written by: Adriana Gomez-Weston, CC2K Staff Writer

As little girls, most of us play dress up, and imagine ourselves as beautiful princesses. From an early age, we’re groomed to wait for the handsome young prince to come to the rescue. As young women, it takes time to unlearn that we can be our own heroes that save the day. Paradise Hills taps into the imagination and proves that you can be the hero of your own story. A magical fairy tale, Paradise Hills embraces femininity and allows young women to be their own saviors at the same time.

In her feature debut, Alice Waddington mixes sci-fi and fantasy, high fashion, and female empowerment.  With a screenplay by Colossal‘s Nacho Vigalondo, Paradise Hills is one of the most original films to come out of the Sundance lineup. A former assistant of photography, costume designer, and advertising executive, Alice Waddington is taking the reigns as a new director on the scene. With Paradise Hills, she proves that you’re allowed to grow up, but you don’t have to leave your childhood dreams behind.

Emma Roberts stars as Uma, a wayward young heiress who is sent away to a mysterious Mediterranean island called Paradise Hills. The island is a place where privileged, misbehaved young women are shaped into proper members of society…or whoever their families want them to be. With its unconventional therapy methods, the facility boasts a perfect success rate for its clients. Right off the bat, Uma realizes that something is off about the facility and makes plans to escape.

Following films such as Nerve, Emma Roberts leads the charge again as a charismatic young heroine. Uma’s fellow patients are Amarna (Eiza Gonzalez), Chloe (Danielle MacDonald), and Yu (Awkwafina). Each woman has their own unique reason for being shipped to Paradise Hills. Amarna is an “out of control” pop star who wants to go her own way. Chloe’s stay is being used to make her lose weight, and improve her appearance. A young woman from a disadvantaged background, Yu was sent to the facility by her aunt and uncle to become a more socially acceptable version of herself.

Under the care of The Duchess, (Milla Jovovich) the women spend their days learning how to be “better.” At first Paradise Hills seems like a luxurious rehab facility that serves as more of vacation. The women are treated to expensive makeover, customized meals, and enjoy yoga sessions during their stays. However, Uma notices the sinister vibe of the island and the elusive Duchess. Uma teeters between planning to escape with her lower class boyfriend Markus, (Jeremy Irvine) and Amarna, who immediately becomes smitten with her. Markus wants to whisk Uma away from her impending marriage, and Amarna desires to help Uma escape so that they can both be free. As Uma plots her escape, she realizes that the goings on at Paradise Hill are far more complex than she realizes. The women are there to be fixed, but something sophisticated and horrifying happens at night, behind closed doors. Once Uma discovers what’s really happening on the island, she hatches a plan to free herself, and her friends.

The story of Paradise Hills is accented by remarkable production design by Laia Colet, and the lavish, spectacular costume design of Alberto Valcárcel. Drawing inspirations from the likes of Alexander McQueen, Iris Van Herpen, 17th century costume, and Final Fantasy, the looks of Paradise Hills pays homage to its many inspirations, but manage to be their own entity. Waddington creates some exciting world-building with the concepts of “Uppers” and “Lowers,” and the sci-fi/fantasy dreamland of Paradise Hills. The world of Paradise Hills is the pastel, neon-soaked, fashion-forward utopia I’ve always wanted to be a part of. With the introduction of these characters, there was so much more I wanted to see. Paradise Hills is fun and imaginative, and provides a positive message for young women. It tells us, “Perfection is an illusion, not a reality.”