Nothing ties a stomach in knots for someone covering regional film more than the statement, “We shot this movie here with local talent.” The only words producing more anxiety may be the follow-up question “What do you think of it?” This became a timely issue as a huge number of local filmmakers involved themselves somehow in the making of Paradise, FL, a film shot entirely in Cortez and Sarasota, starring actors trained at the Asolo Conservatory. Most every significant film institution in the region banked a small part of their reputation on the success of this film, including the Sarasota Film Festival, which scheduled a screening in its largest available venue for an opening weekend premiere.
It was nerve-wracking walking into the Sarasota Opera House on Saturday, but an immediate relief then to see Paradise, FL is a film that satisfies, one that connects stunning imagery with a captivating story that produces ample emotional resonance. This film can stand up next to the independent films filmed anywhere in the country. And while this industry carries no guarantees of success regardless of a job well done, producer-writer Tony Stopperan and director Nick Morgulis have produced a work of art worthy of the increasingly crowded indie marketplace where this movie must now compete.
Paradise centers its story around the frying friendship between Tommy and Sean, characters portrayed respectively by Jon-Michael Miller and Kristopher Higgins, who have known each other since childhood and live with many of the same challenges and vices. Only Tommy can be described as a stand-up guy, but then he has less responsibilities to abandon. Sean has two children, one with his wife Maggie and one from a previous relationship with local dope-dealer Kelly. As Sean continues a barely-concealed affair with Kelly, Maggie raises both kids with the help of her own mother, at least until the outrageousness of the situation leads her to jump off the Ringling bridge in a failed suicide attempt.
While Maggie recovers, Tommy steps in to effectively serve as stay-at-home mom to Sean’s kids. Here, we get a glimpse of the parent he might be, playing games and bonding more consciously than Sean seems willing to do. When Sean stumbles home with a stoned Kelly in tow and scares the couple’s old-enough-to-know-that’s-wrong daughter, Tommy demands the house go dry—free of drugs, booze or adultery—or he will leave. And when that same little girl spends a weekend at her mother’s house, it’s Tommy who sneaks a Go phone into her backpack to use if she needs rescue from a bad situation; to no one’s surprise the phone rings before the weekend is out.
Of course, Tommy’s own weaknesses are also on full display. He shares an Oxy addiction with other Paradise residents, and reaches the brink of bad sexual choices more than once in the film. In the story’s climax, it’s Tommy’s weaknesses that drive the plot tragically forward, not his strengths, and it’s to Miller’s credit as an actor that he can keep the audience on Tommy’s side both for heroic decisions and for horribly consequential ones.
The film has a few issues. A more disciplined editor might knock the run time substantially down be eliminating times when the director lingers too long on lush scenery. And a subplot about meeting fishing quotas sometimes distracts from a story appropriately centered on these men’s personal lives more than their work personas. But those complaints are minor, and similar gripes could frankly be leveled against any narrative feature on IFC. Whether a distributor pushes for these problems to be fixed or not, the company that picks this film up should have no trouble finding an audience.
Stopperan himself has stressed this is a story about loyalty more than one about addiction or family catastrophe, but the beauty is the film will appeal to those looking for an exploration of human tenacity or a dissection of character flaws. The film makes good use of its location; the setting is a fictional fishing town called Paradise and characters frequently note the Florida life is not the utopia for native residents that the retirement brochures make it out to be. But as in films like Free Ride or Sunshine State, that point is delivered without reducing the appeal to filmgoers who never set foot in Florida.
That’s important, because it actively dodges the first critique of any “regional film.” The Opera House at the premiere may have brimmed with friends and family, but you don’t need to know the guy who worked the boom in order to enjoy this film. The biggest dreamers hope this movie can be the Beasts of the Southern Wild for Southwest Florida, a distinctly local film that can boost the national reputation of Greater Sarasota the way that Oscar contender changed perceptions of New Orleans. It’s a lofty goal, and whether it could be achieved likely is beyond Stopperan’s control. But however wide an audience sees Paradise, the film has proven this community can produce work worthy of pride.
UPDATE: A third screening of Paradise, FL has been scheduled at the Sarasota Film Festival for Saturday, April 18, at 8:15pm.