February 2020
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Paradise (1991)

DIRECTOR: Mary Agnes Donoghue

CAST: Don Johnson, Melanie Griffith, Elijah Wood, Thora Birch, Sheila McCarthy, Eve Gordon, Louise Latham


Paradise is one of those quiet little low-key films that slips through among the summer blockbuster action-adventure flicks and romantic comedies without hardly attracting anyone’s attention.  A thoughtful, deliberately-paced drama, it fell largely under the radar despite featuring popular—at least at the time—stars Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith.  But for those who happen across it, Paradise is not a “great film”, but a nice little story about four people, two adults and two kids, who grow emotionally through their relationships with each other.

Willard (Elijah Wood) is a socially awkward ten-year-old who spends much of his time after school running from bullies.  His father has been away for months on end—supposedly unable to communicate onboard a submarine—and his mother (Eve Gordon) ships him off to stall revealing the truth about their disintegrating marriage, sending him to spend the summer with her lifelong friend Lily Reed (Melanie Griffith) and her husband Ben (Griffith’s offscreen husband Don Johnson), who are having some issues of their own.  Lily tries to be welcoming to Willard, but the surly Ben is about as unenthusiastic about Willard’s arrival as the boy is about being there.  There is a wall of silence between the married partners, and Ben spends most of his time at the local bar or aboard his shrimp boat.  Willard isn’t thrilled about being dumped in between them, but his summer brightens when he makes friends with a local tomboy named Billie (Thora Birch).  Over the course of the summer, Billie brings Willard a little out of his shell, and his presence might help serve as a catalyst for Ben and Lily to repair their own relationship.

Not a lot “happens” in Paradise, for the most part, and the pace is deliberate, running a little toward the sluggish.  But it’s a nicely-constructed little drama built around a familiar theme.  Director Mary Agnes Donoghue has a touch for quiet intimate character moments; Johnson and Griffith have a dramatic, effective scene together in which they finally address issues that have gone unsaid for too long, and there are various other credible bonding moments among the characters.  The film makes good use of its natural locations; the marshes, the slow-moving river opening into the sea, befitting the thoughtful, gentle flow of the story, letting itself unspool at a leisurely pace.  In fact, the few missteps are when it seemingly feels the need to liven things up, most glaringly in an overly dramatic climactic scene that feels tacked-on to supply the movie with an “exciting” ending when it required no such thing.  There’s also a subplot involving Billie’s encounter with an older artistic neighbor (Louise Latham) which seems like it should have been either further developed or left out.

The performances find the right low-key notes in crafting down-to-earth characters.  Don Johnson, probably best-known for the TV series Miami Vice, demonstrates he can be credible in a low-key serious dramatic role as Ben, whose surly demeanor hides wounds.  Likewise, Melanie Griffith’s Lily hides behind a closed-off demeanor to numb herself enough to keep going, though this has left her essentially in a state of suspended animation.  Like the best child actors, Elijah Wood plays the quiet, rather solemn Willard in serious straightforward fashion without trying to be cute.  More flamboyant than the low-key Wood is Thora Birch as the spunky, feisty tomboy Billie, but the two have a natural, unforced chemistry.

Paradise isn’t a great film—it hits a few melodramatic missteps, and at other times verges on mawkish and saccharine—but it’s a nice low-key little drama, sometimes funny, sometimes touching, and nicely-acted.  If you appreciate this kind of quiet little family drama, it’s worth a look.

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