I can hardly believe that it’s twenty years ago this month since I first saw Mary Agnes Donoghue’s Paradise in the cinema. Alongside Home Alone (1990) – my first big film obsession – Paradise was the movie that I returned to most frequently throughout the 1990s. And while other, somewhat similar films that captivated me at the time (such as Howard Zieff’s My Girl ; oh, the exquisite trauma of Master Culkin’s death-by-bees!) have pretty much fallen by the wayside now, Paradise is a film that I continue to hold in high esteem and to experience with enormous gratitude, affection and pleasure. An adaptation of Jean-Loup Hubert’s Le Grand Chemin (1988) – and one that gives the lie to the received wisdom about the “inevitable” inferiority of Hollywood remakes of French films – Paradise concerns the summer spent by a shy city boy, Willard (Elijah Wood, in pre-Hobbit days, and giving a wonderfully soulful, understated performance), in the rural Michigan home of his mother’s friends Lily and Ben Reed (Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson), a couple numbed by and still grieving the death of their young son in an accident several years previously. Throughout the summer, Willard’s presence acts as a catalyst for the almost-estranged couple’s gradual reconciliation, while his friendship with the Reed’s neighbour Billie Pike (Thora Birch) gives him the courage to face his own fears and problems with greater fortitude.
What I responded to so intensely in Paradise as a 12-year-old is difficult to recall precisely. But I do remember experiencing an immediate sense of identification with the movie’s characters, who seemed entirely authentic to me, and whose concerns and dilemmas echoed my own in ways that have become increasingly clear to me as time has gone on. The key to the film is, I think, precisely the sense of intimacy it creates: Donoghue keeps the characters close to us, so that their shifts in perception, the gradual connections they forge often in spite of themselves, really resonate.
Paradise renders these small moments of connection with magical tenderness, but without an excess of sentimentality. The potential mawkishness of the material is sidestepped, throughout, with consummate delicacy and discretion, and with humour too (much of it courtesy of Sheila McCarthy’s turn as Billie’s husband-hunting waitress mother). There’s a gentle, easeful flow, and a lovely sense of structure, to the movie, but it has loss right there at its centre and a scene of confrontation between Ben and Lily (beautifully played by Johnson and Griffith, who draw effectively on their off-screen history together) that’s shocking in its intensity. (This is also the last film in which you get to see the pre-surgery Griffith looking like herself on screen and what a lovely, unique presence she is here.) I see Paradise now as a transitional film, in the sense that it bridged the gap between kids’ movies and adult cinema for me; indeed, the gaps and parallels in adults’ and children’s emotional experience of the world is one of the film’s major concerns. Given her exquisite work here, it’s a real shame that Donoghue never got the chance to direct another movie. Still, at least there’s always the opportunity – one I intend to take up quite soon, in fact – to return to Paradise.