Heather Del Rio, Andrew Sensenig, Dane Seth Hurlburt, Austin Chittim
Monarch Home Entertainment (DVD)
Filmmaker's Commentary; Short Doc "Beyond Paradise"
Esther (Heather Del Rio) is a young and faithful Christian living under the watchful eye of an extremely conservative Christian sect. When she inexplicably takes a job at a health food store owned by Gabriel (Dane Seth Hurlburt), right meets left and, as one character explains "The point on the ideological spectrum where far-left bohemians and right-wing fundamentalists meet is a health food store."
Seldom has a film been constructed around such themes as religion, spiritual abuse and religious tolerance with such intelligence and grace. As directed by Storme Wood and written by Andie Redwine, who are also co-producers of the film, Paradise Recovered is an emotionally resonant, intellectually satisfying and amazingly respectful film in which characters to the right and to the left are treated without an ounce of judgment or condescension to be found.
Essentially a modern day retelling of the parable of the Good Samaritan, Paradise Recovered starts out by painting a vivid portrait of Esther, who also works as an assistant for Pastor David Sawyer (Andrew Sensenig), the local preacher for Warren F. Vanderbilt's Prophetic Watchman Ministries, an ultra-conservative outfit that prohibits such things as birthdays, holidays, doctors, movies, unclean foods, contemporary music and, for that matter, any degree of disagreement with church teachings. She has been promised (i.e., "engaged") to Phillip (Austin Chittim), David's son and a soon-to-be minister in the faith. However, when Phillip ends up visiting her bedroom one evening, Esther finds herself shunned by David and booted out of the home, her church and, in reality, her family.
Esther will eventually move in with Gabriel and Mark (Oliver Luke), quickly learning just how skeptical a preacher's kid like Gabriel has become and she also finds herself tiptoeing around living life in a very different way including such novelties as wearing jeans, going to movies, listening to music, skinny-dipping (Gasp!) and more. To her immense credit, Del Rio plays out these scenes gingerly by both displaying the experiences as a sort of revelation while never letting go of how different all of this is for the rather naive Esther. While Esther displays her moments of joy and relief, so too we get her sense of uneasiness at turning away from the life she has always known.
To the credit of both Redwine and Wood, Paradise Recovered calls into account the more spiritually abusive aspects of Esther's path without ever spiraling into an attack her on genuine, deeply felt faith. It's a fine balance, and the script, direction and performances all achieve it with magnificent results.
While the character of Esther is handled with sensitivity and respect, so too is that of Gabriel, a decidedly more liberal individual who could have easily been turned into a sort of personal savior for Esther in a less authentic film. Instead, Hurlburt takes us inside the world of a young man who may very well have had a similar start but whose sense of being and belief took an infinitely different route. Redwine's wonderfully realized script doesn't choose sides, instead finding incredibly satisfying ways for these characters to weave themselves together, learn to understand themselves and learn how to peacefully co-exist despite their differences.
Andrew Sensenig and Austin Chittim shine as supporting players, however, it's worth noting that the entire supporting cast is strong here along with the camera work of D.P. David Blue Garcia and the earthy yet magical original music from Indy's own Cara Jean Wahlers and Grover Parido.
Easily one of the true gems of the 2010 Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis, where the film had its world premiere this past week, Paradise Recovered is on its way next to the Austin Film Festival as it begins its run on the film festival circuit.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic