'She Paradise': Film Review | AFI 2020

She Paradise
Heck of a Hill Prods.

Onessa Nestor in 'She Paradise'

Dynamic dance and vivid characters elevate a basic story.

Maya Cozier's Trinidad-set debut feature revolves around a female crew of hard-working, hard-partying soca dancers and their newest recruit.

Whether you call it classic or generic, the coming-of-age story of Sparkle, the fittingly named 17-year-old at the center of She Paradise, follows a familiar trajectory. She's a teen with drive, talent and an independent streak, defying parental disapproval and breaking away from childhood. What distinguishes Sparkle's story is soca dancing, a Trinidadian specialty marked by fierce acrobatics and audacious sexuality. Her openhearted walk on the wild side places her in a new world of possibility, but it's territory that's also fraught with danger. For the movie's young women — brought to gutsy life by a terrific quartet of dancer-actors — soca is a language of sisterhood yet one that's hardly free from the controlling power of men with money.

Expanding upon a 2019 short of the same name, director Maya Cozier and her co-writer, Melina Brown, may hit garden-variety dramatic beats, but they unfold their narrative with economy and a sure feel for the setting, the music and the characters.

As in many such stories, the protagonist's yearning to define herself on her own terms is fueled in part by economic need. In Trinidad's capital city, Port of Spain, Sparkle (Onessa Nestor) has been raised by her kind but strict grandfather (Michael Cherrie), a goldsmith whose once-robust business is barely scraping by. On her way home from trying to stretch a few dollars at the farmers' market, she's drawn to a dynamic, all-female soca dance crew who are seeking new members for Carnival, a busy season of parties and concerts that presents a chance to make "serious money," as group leader Diamond (Kimberly Crichton) puts it.

Tough and clear-eyed, Diamond wields mob-boss authority. But beneath it courses a big-sisterly been-there-done-that empathy, more perceptive than warm, that pierces the surface occasionally, and rarely for long. At the first round of open auditions she quickly dismisses Sparkle, whose lipstick and eye shadow can't hide her adolescent innocence. Shan (Denisia Latchman), who's laser-focused on making money, is even less welcoming than Diamond. But the vivacious Mica (Chelsey Rampersad), the most developed character among Sparkle's new friends, offers advice and encouragement, and soon Sparkle has charmed her way into a second chance.

She's a fast learner, beginning with her savvy offering of gold necklaces swiped from her grandfather's shop. Her confidence grows with each dance move she masters and as she adopts the skimpy outfits and elaborate adornments of Diamond and company's take on the genre. (Designer Shandelle Loregnard does excellent double duty on costumes and interiors.) Sparkle's transformation alarms Papa, who fears that she's becoming a "jamette" (local lingo for a promiscuous woman), and who disdains soca dancing as "girls gyrating with no clothes on."

Nestor effortlessly embodies her character's shining innocence, along with the push-pull of reluctance and curiosity as she enters the swirl of beach parties and high rollers. Her untarnished youth — or maybe just her naïveté — attracts singer-producer Skinny (Kern Mollineau), a star of the scene who's seeking something "a little fresh" for a video shoot. With his entourage and real estate boasts, Skinny is a hotshot local boy made good. Mollineau signals something predatory in his smoothness, but to the uninitiated or the unwary the laid-back façade might suggest intentions that are benign, if not quite benevolent. Sparkle, feeling chosen when he murmurs come-ons to her and taps her as lead dancer, confuses her love-interest role in the video for the real deal. "He's not your friend," Diamond warns her, a hint of protectiveness breaking through the hard-edged swagger.

Her protectiveness operates only to a point, that point being the much-needed paycheck. The troupe's all-for-one ethos has definite limits, as Cozier makes distressingly clear after a traumatic turn of events. The helmer and her fine cast convincingly acknowledge the emotional hangover of the trauma along with its sexual politics, but She Paradise is more interested in the resilience of those who don't have time to wallow in pain — or the wherewithal to pursue justice.

The dances that these women perform, muscular and sinuous, can be breathtaking in their exuberance. They might have had even more power if the camerawork and editing had been less busy and let the performances play out uninterrupted. But before they've even begun their lithe and energetic dance-floor maneuvers, in the way they stand, Diamond, Shan, Mica and Sparkle announce their strength: They're women who own and love and celebrate their bodies. And yet, for all their sex-positive bravado, they haven't escaped the old-school male gaze. They want to transcend, not just survive, and they like to believe they're calling the shots. But unlike the two soaring birds that catch Sparkle's attention early in the film, they're not as free as they think.

Venue: AFI Fest (New Auteurs)
Production company: Heck of a Hill Productions
Cast: Onessa Nestor, Kimberly Crichton, Chelsey Rampersad, Denisia Latchman, Kern Mollineau, Michael Cherrie
Director: Maya Cozier
Screenwriters: Maya Cozier, Melina Brown
Producers: Jennifer Konawal Brady, Mishka Brown, Kara Baker, Jolene Mendes, Marie-Elena Joseph
Executive producers: Erika Pearsall, Kristina Loggia, Bruce Paddington, Janine Mendes-Franco
Director of photography: Jackson Warner Lewis
Production designer, costume designer: Shandelle Loregnard
Editor: Gordon Grinberg
Composer: Zane Rodulfo

In English and Trinidadian patois
75 minutes