Review: Paradise Is Burning (Mika Gustafson)

Paradise Is Burning is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, and a work that will undoubtedly strike a chord with a large portion of the audience.”

Is it intentional or merely a coincidence that the title of Paradise Is Burning is eerily close to the revolutionary documentary Paris Is Burning? At first glance they seem like entirely different films, since they are separated by temporal and geographical barriers and take place in wildly different contexts. Outside of perhaps sharing some queer commentary in the central relationship between the protagonist and an older woman with whom she forms a strong connection (albeit relegating this merely to subtext, so it is a matter of interpretation, with the ambiguity being part of the appeal of the story), there isn’t much similarity. However, the further we look, the more we understand how there may be some slight, perhaps even superficial, correlation between the two. Mika Gustafson is an incredibly intriguing filmmaker who has a consistently strong grasp on contemporary culture as demonstrated in some of her previous work, which includes a few short films and a co-director credit on a documentary about the revolutionary Swedish rapper Silvana Imam, which have helped her develop a strong artistic voice that positions her as someone to watch. The director expands on a lot of these intriguing ideas in this film, her narrative feature debut and one of the most moving films of the past year, a daring and sometimes quite provocative existential odyssey that toggles the boundary between fact and fiction in fascinating ways, presenting us with a powerful story of individuality and gender dynamics in the modern world.

Gustafson belongs to a generation of filmmakers that do not need to rely too heavily on subtext in terms of the overall meaning of their work, and she makes it very clear that Paradise Is Burning is a film about exploring femininity in various ways. And while it may seem overly simplistic, there is rarely a situation where films by female directors are not worth our time, especially when they are delivered with such extraordinary consistency and delicacy as we see here. The film starts with three sisters who have seemingly been abandoned by their volatile mother, and it falls to the oldest of the trio to take on the role of caretaker (echoing Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows, a clear inspiration for this film). But when social services catches on to the fact that these three girls, all of them underage, are apparently without a guardian, it becomes necessary to find someone to play their mother, with the leading candidate going from a mere potential actor in this plot to a genuine surrogate parent. The film navigates conversations around both sisterhood and motherhood, the two becoming intertwined as Gustafson develops on these themes. Paradise Is Burning becomes a rich and meaningful examination of female bonding and how it is rarely stagnant, instead flourishing and changing as these girls navigate their various stages of life. These prove to be extremely unusual and told with such incredible precision in a film that is mainly a social realist drama with touches of brief abstraction that keep the viewer engaged and invested in the metaphysical journey of the characters.

The film may be focused on the trials and tribulations of three sisters as they navigate various challenges, but it is mostly told through the perspective of Laura, the oldest sister and de facto guardian who takes on the responsibility of caring for her siblings, while still trying to make her way through a world she doesn’t fully understand. Paradise Is Burning is constructed from this character, and thus the director had the responsibility to make sure she was portrayed by someone who could capture all the various nuances that bind this young protagonist together. The role is given to Bianca Delbravo, who is an absolute revelation – it takes a lot of talent to play someone who is simultaneously world-weary and naïve without it becoming contradictory, and she works closely with the director (and the rest of the cast) to shade in the various dimensions of the role, turning in one of the year’s most poignant performances. There comes a moment in all of our lives when we find ourselves at an existential crossroads, standing in the ambiguous space between adolescence and adulthood, and this experience can be more challenging for some than others. It’s staggering to realize that this is Delbravo’s debut, and she delivers such an intense and emotional performance it makes us both curious and excited to see what the future holds for this promising young performer, who clearly has a wealth of potential and a genuine gift as an actor.

Paradise Is Burning signals the start of what is bound to be a fascinating career, and Gustafson has already made a strong case for herself as one of the most exciting young filmmakers to come out of contemporary Sweden, a country known for giving a platform to a diverse range of artistic voices. This film represents a new kind of coming-of-age drama, one that seems simple in theory but has a depth and perspective that is far more interesting than simply watching a young protagonist face the challenges everyone encounters in their formative years. At a cursory glance, it doesn’t seem all that complex, but only after we have truly immersed ourselves in this story do we start to see the small, intricate details taking shape. It’s quite a powerful piece of filmmaking, and even if it may look at a niche topic (since childhood abandonment is something that hopefully doesn’t resonate too widely), there are elements that touch on universal themes, even if it is something as simple as making a brief human connection with someone who truly understands us. It is an achingly beautiful ode to the process of growing up, and an affectionate tribute to the people who find themselves forced to become mature beyond their years, particularly in the moments of catharsis where they are finally allowed to process the past. Poetic and deeply moving, and driven by the most sincere sense of compassion, Paradise Is Burning is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, and a work that will undoubtedly strike a chord with a large portion of the audience.