She Paradise, directed and co-written by Maya Cozier, is your classic “young girl meets older crowd” and “aspiring dancer” story all in one. In an “aspiring dancer” film, typically a young person auditions for something like a dance crew and fails but, with enough practice, unlocks the confidence and skills that were inside all along.
Think Step Up or Netflix’s Work It. And in a “young girl meets older crowd” film, normally the girl parties and drinks, ultimately ending up in a dangerous situation. Think Thirteen but less extreme.
She Paradise takes pieces of each film type, sets them against the backdrop of Trinidad and infuses them with a soca “soul of calypso” sound. The tight, 75-minute runtime allows little breathing room for its characters, while the story never quite differentiates itself from others that have come before.
Seventeen-year old Sparkle (Onessa Nestor) is on her way home from the market when she sees a group of women dancing. The camera pans out from her gaze and onto these women. They’re dressed in tight, short clothing, their bodies moving with purpose and control.
When the routine ends, they hand out flyers, as they’re looking for dancers. Sparkle is reluctantly given one, as she’s told she dresses like a 12- year-old.
At the audition, she’s stiff and awkward, as her body has never moved like this before. When Mica (Chelsey Rampersad) tries to help, she says to pretend she’s with a man. Diamond (Kimberly Crichton), the group leader, plays up Sparkle’s innocence by asking if she even knows how to have sex and eventually dismisses her from the audition.
Sparkle lives with her grandfather (Michael Cherrie), lovingly referred to as Papa, who is a jewelry maker. She steals two of his pieces and gifts them to Diamond and Mica, prompting them to invite her out. This gesture, in combination with a musician, Skinny (Kern Mollineau), wanting Sparkle in his music video, seals her position in the group. Sparkle wants to dance but, more importantly, needs money as Papa has not made a sale in a few months.
Drawing from other types of films with similar plots, the core story has to stick to certain parameters and there’s really nowhere for it to go that isn’t predictable. It includes the “mean girl” Diamond, who uses Sparkle for her own gains, pressuring her into doing things she’s uncomfortable with.
There’s Mica, a sympathetic friend to Sparkle, but it’s unclear where her sympathy originates. And then there’s Papa, the father figure, who doesn’t want her to dance, and who, in one of Sparkle’s more rebellious moments, compares her to her mother. Sparkle’s mother is a faint outline of a person, but it’s known that she and Papa had a fraught relationship, as she took as much as she could from him. Papa wants better for Sparkle, but in rebellious teen fashion, Sparkle does what she wants.
Because the bones of this story are so common, it didn’t feel deeply connected to its environment. It’s hard for typical plots to feel firmly rooted. For example, Parasite felt so deeply connected to its time and place that its story couldn’t just be plucked and set somewhere else with a different cast of characters. I wanted the plot of this film to feel like that, more deeply Trinidadian; the beautiful scenery, soca music and the diverse cast helped but just couldn’t bridge that disconnect.