There was no reason to expect Paradise: Hope, the third in a trilogy of movies (after Paradise: Love and Paradise: Faith) by Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl, to be anything but rigorous and grueling. In the previous two pictures — the first about a middle-aged woman on a sex vacation in Kenya, the second about a self-flagellating religious fanatic in love with the concept of Jesus — Seidl took pleasure in thoughtfully (and mercilessly) provoking the audience with images and characters designed to shock and disturb and make you contemplate the nature of its themes (love and faith) from unusual perspectives. In those films, the title Paradise came off as a bitter joke: Hell would have been more appropriate (that’s intended as a compliment).
But Paradise: Hope finds Seidl in a gentler frame of mind — if not quite hopeful, then at least less pessimistic. The films is set at a camp for overweight teens, where Melanie (Melanie Lenz) has been sent for the summer by her vacationing mother (the protagonist of Paradise: Love). The routine at the facility is a lot like military boot camp or prison: The kids bunk four to a room and are constantly supervised by a physical fitness coach (Michael Thomas) and a nutritionist (Viviane Bartsch) in charged of getting these chubby kids, most of them adolescents, to shed some pounds.
For a while, the film observes what day-to-day life at the camp is like: Exercise routines, games of discipline (the teens are asked to put a piece of chocolate in their mouth and see how long they can go without swallowing it) and visits to the staff doctor (Joseph Lorenz) to track their progress. Seidl shoots a lot of these sequences in medium shots with his typical static camera — a study of an institution at work.
But the camerawork is looser and more fluid when the adults are away. At night, in their rooms, the kids sneak snacks and beer and play spin the bottle. Sex and first loves are discussed. Melanie, who is 16 and becoming sexually aware, starts wearing make-up to her check-ups with the doctor, who may or may not be taking an unusual interest in her. “I love his eyes,” she tells another girl about the physician. Because Seild’s movies have taught us to always expect the worst, your stomach starts to churn.
But although Paradise: Hope is far from a happy movie (there’s a heartbreaking scene late in the film that encapsulates human loneliness and the need to be loved in a simple telephone call), the resolution is less bleak this time. Melanie (played with a charming lack of self-consciousness by Lenz) will do a lot of growing up before the end credits, but she won’t be permanently scarred or damaged, and there is even a glimpse of a survivor’s spirit stirring within her. Paradise: Hope plays better if you’ve seen the previous two movies, so you can grasp the reach and scope of Seidl’s trilogy. But the film stands alone as a tender portrait of adolescence at its most vulnerable and how often we manage to survive it, even when we’re surrounded by predators and wolves.