review: she paradise
Onessa Nestor in She Paradise (2021)
She Paradise is a coming-of-age story of new beginnings and unexpected encounters in the scene of soca-music dance. The film is the directorial feature debut of Maya Cozier, who follows up her short film of the same name and re-casts Onessa Nestor as the protagonist. Sparkle (Nestor) is a teenage girl who stumbles upon a free-spirited dance crew. Among the dancers are Diamond (Kimberly Crichton), Shan (Denisia Latchman), and Mica (Chelsey Rampersad). Altogether they step into the seemingly glamorous setting of music videos and nightlife. Keeping a watchful eye on Sparkle’s late nights and frequent time away from home, her Papa (Michael Cherrie) lets his frustration be known. The path to become a soca-music dancer is a lot harder than Sparkle first reckoned. Unsetting encounters with abuse and exploitation are at the core of Cozier’s film, which has a haunting message even though the runtime is far shorter than desired. She Paradise explores an intriguing set of dynamics shared between girls who are trying to follow their dreams and look out for one another at the same time.
Set in Trinidad, She Paradise is a story of personal discovery and growth. Sparkle is in a complete whirlwind from the moment she looks upon a group of dancers, wide-eyed and eager to join. Her character is intriguing to watch precisely because she steps into a new environment with confidence, and subverts other dancers’ expectations at every turn. The screenplay, co-written by Cozier and Melina Brown, makes a point to feature moments in which Sparkle surprises her surroundings. She makes decisions that reflect self-protection. She has a strong need to see her determination through in spite of what’s happening around her, in spite of how her actions can affect the other girls in the dance crew. The film introduces a complex character and interesting dynamics between the dancers, but doesn’t amount to a fully realized feature. Ideas spark on the surface and just when the story leans into the protagonist’s character development, the film ends. While there are plenty of benefits to watching films with a short runtime, and so much can be said within such time, She Paradise falls short by wrapping up the journey prematurely. On the one hand, reflecting on where Cozier ends her film stresses how refreshing it is that this coming of-age story has no resolution of any kind. The ending is the beginning.
The cookie-cutter narrative of coming-of-age films and their fairytale endings is not a path that She Paradise entertains. She Paradise walks a fine line between making friends and trying to survive in a ruthless reality. The group of girls at the center of this film find some comfort in sharing spaces. They are almost immediately connected and sense the dangers of what’s ahead. The film subverts expectations by leaning into the complicated dynamics between the female characters, teetering on jealousy but also wanting to shield one another. One of the disappointments from the film’s premature ending is not getting the opportunity to watch these relationships unfold in fuller capacity. The story is constantly moving in a flash, but She Paradise struggles to hold onto the urgency of its environment.
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