By turns puckish and grim, “Paradise Hills” is just the latest female-driven dystopian story to hit screens. Maybe it’s the times, and these chronicles of peril and resistance represent a mood (or a game plan). Whatever the reason, the bad times keep coming for women, who have battled odds, other people and sometimes monsters in modest fairy tales like “Endzeit” and “Into the Forest” as well as in larger-scaled apocalyptic fictions like “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
The name “Paradise Hills” refers to a rehabilitation center on a verdant island. Its isolation is an early clue that something isn’t right on this putative Shangri-La where a young woman, Uma (Emma Roberts), is yelling to be let out of a locked room. It’s a pretty prison, with a grassy carpet and a painted landscape spreading across the walls. Sun streams in from overhead, a taunting promise of the larger, lighter open world, and a resonant image in a movie filled with telegraphing visuals.
Warmth proves as elusive as escape does. Uma soon discovers that Paradise Hills is a rehab center for privileged young women who don’t conform to their family’s antediluvian norms of femininity. Overseen by the Duchess (an amusing Milla Jovovich), the women undergo various treatments, some more willingly than others. In flouncy old-fashioned uniforms, they cavort and submit, though some eye the exit. When they exercise, they don’t break a sweat; at dinner, they eat enforced meager rations. Like exotic birds in gilded cages, they are at once pampered and imprisoned.
The director Alice Waddington sets the look and mood swiftly, most successfully through the costumes and the production design, both adorned with dollops of color and witty, texture-enriching filigree. While the Duchess floats through the orderly grounds like a Stepford Scarlett O’Hara — straw hats, cascading gowns, blank smiles — the inmates are pointedly dressed in girlish outfits, virginal white from their neck ruffs to their high-button boots. They sleep in identical beds in identical billowy nighties and wander around in dresses with Elizabethan-style bodices that flatten their breasts, as if to retard (and deny) their maturity and independence.
Waddington appears to have drawn visual and narrative inspiration from a range of sources, with a tasty pinch of Lewis Carroll, an acid splash of Stanley Kubrick, a smattering of Giorgio de Chirico. The white costumes summon up “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” while the fastidiously manicured grounds bring to mind those in “Last Year at Marienbad.” Uma at times seems like an Alice in Un-wonderland, an intruder-inmate in a curiouser and curiouser realm. She meets friends — Danielle Macdonald, Awkwafina and Eiza González play other patients (detainees) — who come with their own teary tales. Together, the women bond and endure until something at last gives.
Set in a vague future that’s clearly in the grip of the past, “Paradise Hills” is very much a movie about the present. At its center is the familiar fight over women’s bodies, a battle that seems already lost when the story opens. Despite Uma’s stated unhappiness, the hovering male guards and her attempts to push back, she never seems really alarmed enough. If anything, she can seem almost resigned, which indicates that the world beyond the island is more terrifying than suggested. At times, though, Uma’s lack of urgency feels more like an oversight, as if Waddington had spent so much time polishing the gears that she overlooked the machinery.
Despite her shaky handle on the movie’s ideas and the appealing if uneven performances, Waddington holds your attention with visual beauty and humor. As the mood and tone darken, the narrative grows more baroque, creepier, and this speculative fiction turns into a freakout, or at least tries to. Alas, Roberts makes an unproductively wan center for this feminist allegory, which could have used more of the oomph that Awkwafina and Macdonald bring. A late revelation about less privileged women shows a thematic road not taken even as it suggests that Waddington may have more to say about women and their seemingly never-ending escape.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.