Diana Silvers stars as taciturn ballet dancer Kate Sanders in the new YA drama Birds of Paradise, which starts out slow but eventually explodes with passion, tension and terror, though like the ballerina herself, it doesn’t blossom until about 30 minutes in.
In an early exposition dump, Kate is established as a shy teen with no friends, the kind of introvert who is so frail, a soft wind could blow her away. She’s a scholarship student at an elite French ballet academy, where she’s been shunned for being too quiet, too poor, too awkward and too American. On her first day, a haughty teacher (Jacqueline Bisset) wastes no time telling her that she’s a complete waste of space, and one of the school’s stars, Marine (Kristine Froseth), punches her in the face.
While it would seem these two are destined to be arch enemies, they somehow become best friends. Marine, mourning the loss of her brother, is also an outsider, and she quickly finds solace in Kate’s company. They take an oath to win the school’s top prize, though it becomes apparent they cannot occupy the same spot. Only one student can take home gold – not that that’s going to stop both from trying, fighting and sleeping their way to the top.
Ellen Reid’s score leaps and twirls and dangles, and coupled with the athletic cinematography, aggressive color design and surreal dream sequences, the film feels like a waking nightmare, inspired by the female-driven hysteria of The Red Shoes, or Darren Aronofsky’s ballet-on-the-brink-of-madness Black Swan starring Natalie Portman.
Birds of Paradise is far less effective than those films, never fully committing to the heightened madness. But it’s still spry, sexy, visually hypnotic and perfectly in rhythm with the ever-changing ballet. At first, the film is simple, basic, shot in static compositions. Then it becomes more fluid as the dance becomes more fluid, and as Kate becomes more in tune with Marine’s zealous wavelength.
The message of Sarah Adina Smith’s film – that adversity is easier to handle with a friend – isn’t exactly groundbreaking. It’s a lesson we’ve seen a million times before. But it all comes together thanks to those aforementioned flourishes, as well as Smith’s harshly realistic portrayal of dance academy milieu.
Though not mentioned in the same breath as basketball, football or soccer, ballet is every bit as intense as those sports in its competitive nature. Countless hours are spent memorizing a thousand moving pieces, sets and bodies, which is to say nothing of the pressure put upon these girls to perform for demanding parents and cutthroat coaches. Birds of Paradise lifts the curtain, so to speak, on that environment. It puts us in Kate’s (pointe) shoes, then tightens the laces inextricably.