The Movie Waffler BFI London Film Festival 2023 Review - PARADISE IS BURNING | The Movie Waffler

BFI London Film Festival 2023 Review - PARADISE IS BURNING

Paradise is Burning review
Three sisters are left to fend for themselves when their mother absconds.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Mika Gustafson

Starring: Bianca Delbravo, Dilvin Asaad, Safira Mossberg, Ida Engvoll, Mitja Siren, Marta Oldenburg, Andrea Edwards

Paradise is Burning poster

If you enjoy female-centric Scandinavian coming-of-age stories like We Are the Best! and Girls Girls Girls, you're in for a treat with Paradise is Burning, the narrative feature debut of Swedish documentary director Mika Gustafson. Her film is also a Nordic cousin of recent British films Rocks and Scrapper, sharing the plot device of young girls left to fend for themselves in the absence of a parent.

Left alone in their messy home on a working class estate are 16-year-old Laura (Bianca Delbravo) and her sisters, 12-year-old Mira (Dilvin Assad) and six-year-old Steffi (Safira Mossberg). It's early summer and they haven't seen their mother since she walked out on her kids at Christmas. The subtle ethnic disparities between the three sisters suggests multiple fathers long since disappeared, or perhaps that their mother may have been a sex worker. Either way, Laura is in charge now. Objectively she's doing a terrible job. With no legal income, she resorts to breaking into empty homes in the middle class part of her town, where she and her sisters and friends often spend days partying in swimming pools. She allows Mira to drink and smoke, and Steffi to wander off alone. The freezer is on the blink, causing Laura to almost poison her sisters with rotten fish sticks.

Paradise is Burning review

But Laura is trying her best, and likely hasn't exactly been set a great example by her mother. Plus, the adults in her life aren't much help. Her carny aunt's reaction to Laura's tale of woe is to send her on her way with a couple of t-shirts. An aging neighbour, who might share her mother's occupation, gives Mira tampons when she experiences her first period, but she also gives the kid a jug of wine.

When Laura receives a call from social services looking to speak with her mother, she manages to stall them but a meeting is called for the following Monday. Laura approaches various adults and asks if they will pose as her mother, but they all decline. Then, while fleeing the owner of a home she broke into, Laura is given refuge in the home of Hanna (Ida Engvoll), an attractive thirtysomething who appears to be suffering from postpartum depression, leaving her newborn in the frustrated hands of her husband. The middle class Hanna develops a curious fascination for Laura's wild ways, and insists that the teen take her on her next expedition to break into a home. As the pair bond, Laura tries to find the right moment to ask if she'll pose as her mother. She also develops a crush on the older woman, and the feeling may be mutual.

While the bulk of the narrative is centred on Laura, we also spend time with her siblings. Mira contends with puberty while acting as "manager" for a depressed older neighbour who dreams of winning the local pub's karaoke competition. Like Laura, she's positioned herself as a maternal figure despite her young age. She acts tough but occasionally betrays her innocence. The look of unbridled joy on Mira's face when Laura gives her one of her aunt's t-shirts is simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking.

Paradise is Burning review

Meanwhile, Steffi behaves like any six-year-old, seeing every new day as a new adventure, making new friends, bringing home stray dogs and occasionally getting herself into scrapes with some sinister older girls.

While the girls are bonded by the familial blood that flows through their veins, Gustafson also employs blood as a symbol throughout the film. To cause a distraction in a shop so her sisters can steal food, Steffi tears open a packet of steaks and smears blood on her face. Laura's face is frequently bloodied from wounds inflicted by herself and others. For Mira it's the blood of her first period. I'm not entirely sure what this specifically symbolises but it's telling that the only time the girls attract sympathy from adults is when they appear to bleed.

The performances of all three young actresses are magnificent, with the three performers cementing their stages of childhood: the innocence of Mossberg's Steffi; the pubescent tug-of-war between late childhood and early womanhood of Assad's Mira; the maternal burden foisted upon Delbravo's Laura at a time when she should be savouring the last blooms of her youth.

Paradise is Burning review

Drawing on her documentary past, Gustafson takes a verité approach. Her camera is always physically close to her young stars but never intrusive, always observational. Her film is free of adult judgment, allowing the viewer to simultaneously frown at Laura's bad decisions while also getting caught up in her infectious free spirit.

As the narrative ticks towards that fateful Monday meeting, our feelings are torn between knowing that for the sake of herself and her sisters Laura can't viably carry on with this charade, but we also don't want to see this trio torn apart. The movie's closing scenes evoke that knot in the stomach every teenager feels on the last weekend of the summer holidays, when you've been allowed to simply be a kid for a few weeks but must return to a world governed by adults, a world that makes little sense for a teen and not much more for an adult either. Paradise is Burning is a nostalgic treat for anyone who fondly recalls the childhood joy of breaking adult rules.

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