‘Paradise Hills’: Young women learn subservience in a wacky, futuristic fairy tale

Emma Roberts stars in the psychological thriller with echoes of everything from “Alice in Wonderland” to “The Wizard of Oz” to “The Stepford Wives” to “The Island” to “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

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Emma Roberts (left) and Eiza Gonzalez play young women sent to a rehab meant to eliminate their independent thinking in “Paradise Hills.”

Samuel Goldwyn Pictures

My favorite moment in “Paradise Hills” is when the upper-crust, formally attired guests at a lavish celebration perform a group dance number that’s like something out of “A Knight’s Tale” crossed with a Monty Python skit.

No wait. My favorite moment is when a dashing young man makes an entrance dressed in priestly, all-white vestments — with what appear to be a gardening spade and a grilling tool attached to the outfit, as if he’s been prepping to host a backyard barbecue in heaven.

No no — my REAL favorite moment in “Paradise Hills” is when Emma Roberts’ white-gowned, pink-haired Uma is running through a scary forest when she is confronted by Milla Jovovich’s evil witchy Duchess (who is wearing a ball gown of white roses and thorns), and the Duchess commands rope-like tree vines to ensnare Uma, and then begins to sing her a twisted lullaby.

Paradise Hills


Samuel Goldwyn Films presents a film directed by Alice Waddington and written by Nacho Vigalondo and Brian DeLeeuw. No MPAA rating, Running time: 94 minutes. Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center and on demand.

Give it up for “Paradise Hills” for swinging for the fences when it comes to bat-bleep crazy. It’s a fractured fairy tale with echoes of everything from “Alice in Wonderland” to “The Wizard of Oz” to “The Stepford Wives” to “The Island” to “The Handmaid’s Tale.” And while it doesn’t fully jell to become something special, there’s never a dull moment, even when you’re thinking: I’m not sure I have the faintest idea of what’s happening here.

Alice Waddington makes her feature directing debut with this futuristic sci-fi psychological thriller, and she is a clearly talented visual stylist. (One can envision a major studio hiring Waddington to helm a big-budget event film based on the skill set displayed in this work.)

The Paradise Hills of the title is a rehabilitation center that looks like a five-star hotel and resort and is located on one of those impossibly beautiful Movie Islands where the colors are more vibrant than even your most dramatic Instagram filter.

Emma Roberts’ Uma wakes up one morning at Paradise Hills with no memory of how she got there or why she’s there. She tries to escape — but there’s no escaping Paradise Hills.

It’s as much of a prison as it is a rehab center.

Turns out Uma is a rebellious, free-thinking spirit who has been sent there to become a better version of herself, which according to the social hierarchy in this near-future world means learning to accept the secondary status of women and embracing the role of subservient wife who never gets out of line.

Uma bonds with Danielle McDonald’s amiable, plus-sized Chloe, whose parents have sent her to Paradise Hills so she’ll become a “skinny pageant contestant”; Awkwafina’s Yu, who is always wearing headphones and is here to receive training that will allow her to step up in societal class and help out her poor family, and Eiza Gonzalez’ Amarna, a globally famous pop star who tells Uma that contrary to the tabloid stories, she’s not in rehab for substance abuse — she’s here because she wanted to make her own music and break free of her sexualized, manufactured persona, and her team sent her to Paradise Hills to rehab THOSE ideas right out of her system.

Milla Jovovich takes an appropriately campy, fairy tale-villain approach to her role as the Duchess, who runs Paradise Hills and strolls the grounds in elaborate get-ups worthy of a Met Gala red carpet. The Duchess puts on an air of maternal royalty as she oversees the sometimes-bizarre rituals ostensibly designed to refine and “improve” these young women — but it’s obvious something dark and nefarious is going on beneath the surface, and Uma and her friends could be in real danger.

We don’t learn the exact nature of that danger, as well as the true purpose of Paradise Hills, until quite late in the game. Suffice to say even with all the crazy goings-on leading up to that point, the answer to the mystery is even crazier than we expect.

Before we get there, “Paradise Hills” dazzles (and occasionally confuses) with color-coded set pieces, e.g., a scene in which Uma gets to know Amarna, and everything is bathed in shades of turquoise and gold and white, and nothing but turquoise and gold and white. (Maybe that color scheme is intended to set a certain mood; maybe it’s just supposed to look really cool. It definitely looks really cool.)

We also get a subplot involving Uma’s “memory locket,” which opens to reveal a holographic depiction of an idyllic scene from Uma’s childhood — a fleeting moment of bliss before tragedy struck and left lasting emotional damage.

If Uma ever decides to commission a piece of jewelry with a hologram capturing everything she has to endure at Paradise Hills, she’s gonna need a bigger locket.

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