At his worst, Austrian director Ulrich Seidl—whose narrative films include Dog Days and Import/Export, and whose nonfiction credits run much longer—tends to mistake the dark absurdities of everyday life for grotesquerie run amok. So it didn’t look promising, on paper, to see that Seidl would be ending his “Paradise” trilogy—his loosely connected series on holidays taken by a middle-aged mother (Paradise: Love), her sister (Paradise: Faith), and her daughter (Paradise: Hope)—with a coming-of-age film set in a diet camp for adolescents. And sure enough, the early scenes in Paradise: Hope serve up the humiliating spectacle of overweight teenagers slouching through a kind of boot camp, where they’re run in circles like round-penned horses, or lined up for graceless somersaults across a mat. Not that Seidl would find such cruelty funny in itself, exactly, or side with the tormenters, but his penchant for black comedy sometimes manifests in ugly ways.
But Paradise: Hope quickly rights itself and becomes lighter, looser, and more sympathetically observed than anything Seidl has done previously, ending a grim trilogy on a brighter note than expected. Granted, this is all relatively speaking: Here’s a film about a 13-year-old whose first love is a camp doctor 40 years her senior, so the discomfort level remains squarely within Seidl’s usual range of mild to extreme squirminess. But the girl’s treacherous journey of self-discovery wends through brighter moments when she makes friends and engages in the lights-out tomfoolery common to summer camps of a less bleak variety. Her naïveté leads her to make some terrible mistakes, which Seidl depicts like Bambi frolicking underfoot of Godzilla. But there are other sides to her—and to the movie—that make the tone rangier and more inviting than it might seem.
Leading a cast of young non-professional actors—alongside a cast of adult professional actors—Melanie Lenz brings sweetness and vulnerability to the role of Melli, a teenager sent to diet camp while her mother is vacationing in Kenya. (Viewers who have seen Paradise: Love know Melli’s mom is visiting Kenya as a sex tourist, but an attempted phone call makes it clear that she didn’t disclose that to her daughter.) Melli and the other kids are suitably miserable trudging their way through fat-burning exercise, healthful dinners, and documentaries about eating right, but Melli tries to make the best of it. She becomes close friends with Verena (Verena Lehbauer), a slightly older girl with some sexual experience, and she flirts with the camp doctor (Joseph Lorenz), who shows no compunction about flirting back. A virgin who’s anxious to change that designation, Melli appears to be on a collision course.
Or is she? As in Paradise: Love, the mating dance between the two main characters turns on power and exploitation: a middle-aged white woman who pays for a partner in the earlier film, a middle-aged doctor who seizes on an innocent in this film. But in both cases, Seidl doesn’t make it so cut-and-dried. The doctor here isn’t bothered by his conscience, exactly, but he and Melli engage in some coy gamesmanship based on mutual provocation and dancing around the line. Just as perilous for Melli is a scene where she and Verena get wasted on purloined mini-bottles of liquor and sneak out for a night on the town, and some male clubbers try to take advantage. The diet-camp setting reveals how the normal burdens of adolescence are exacerbated for Melli, who has additional problems with confidence and self-image, but Seidl has made an insightful film that’s more about the trials of a young woman’s coming of age than about being overweight. Melli’s world is as exploitative in its own way as the Kenyan resort in Paradise: Love, with men of various ages doubling as temptation and threat; her best hope is to dance close to the flame without getting singed.