Early in Reel Paradise, there’s an onscreen caption that tells far more of the story than anyone involved may have anticipated. It explains how John Pierson'independent film guru, filmmaker representative and author of the definitive indie-world text Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes'and his family decided to spend a year on the Fijian island of Taveuni, showing free movies at a run-down, 50-year-old theater called the 180 Meridian Cinema. But it also explains that Pierson only called in documentary director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie) to shoot the last month of their experience in summer of 2003. And that’s the part that’s worth noting.
James certainly had colorful characters to work with in that single month. Pierson himself is a gangly, enthusiastic motor mouth who compares himself to the feverishly visionary protagonist of The Mosquito Coast. His wife Janet has a wry sense of humor and a way of deflating John’s emotional reactions. Their 16-year-old daughter Georgia rebels ferociously in the only ways available to her'hanging out late with local boys, correcting the English of her Fijian teachers. And 13-year-old Wyatt often expresses more wisdom than his three older family members put together.
The key to Reel Paradise is that while James had those interesting characters at his disposal, he didn’t have much of a narrative to which he could attach them. The crucial through-line of the Pierson’s year in Taveuni would seem to be the way the brash, upscale New Yorkers and the Fijians would affect one another'how the kids (and adults) make friends, how the local community responds to the American interlopers, and how they all evolve over the course of that year.
James never gets a chance to see that evolution, so he never gets to show us. We hear second-hand accounts from both John Pierson and local Catholic missionaries about their arguments over movie showtimes conflicting with Mass, but don’t get to watch that clash develop. We see Georgia’s Fijian best friend Miriama as they sing bawdy songs together and Miriama ponders a life-changing decision, but never see the person Miriama was before the Piersons’ arrival. James is coming in during the final act of a five-act play, and we’re expected to fill in a lot of the backstory.
That doesn’t mean he has no thematic material at all to work with. Reel Paradise does touch on questions of cultural imperialism as it intrudes subtly'and sometimes not-so-subtly'as a result of the Piersons’ stay. John betrays himself a bit when he protests that “I don’t want to get into the whole â€˜noble savage’ thing,” yet suggests that he’s interested in a “pure audience responseâ€'which could only come, of course, from violating that purity. Janet recognizes that their presence there will have an impact, whether it’s from the movies John is showing'she’s particularly unhappy with his choice of Jackass'or Georgia tainting Miriama’s reputation by association. And John mocks the missionaries for the way they have attempted to Westernize the Fijians, seemingly oblivious to what he is doing through his movies.
But James also seems resigned to the fact that there’s no driving drama to his story, so he resorts to the last refuge of reality television'showing us the loudest arguments he can find. John lashes out at his Australian landlord after their home is robbed; Janet and Georgia butt heads in the middle of the street over Georgia’s curfew; Georgia and her parents scream at one another after Georgia believes they have insulted her friends by suggesting they may know something about the robbery. Though these scenes may have energy, they’re also mostly noise'distractions from a collection of scenes without a driving force.
There are enough oddball moments here'the stone-faced reaction of the Fijian audience while watching experimental short films, or a rookie projectionist putting the reels in upside-down and backwards'that Reel Paradise rarely feels like it’s completely floundering. But there’s also a lot of filler uncharacteristic of James’ other films. The difference, of course, is that in James’ other films he was able to let a real-life story develop fully. In Reel Paradise, he can only turn his one month into a microcosm of a year'postcards from the edge of the bigger story.
John Pierson will be in attendance for Q&A at the Friday night premiere of Reel Paradise, 7 p.m., Oct. 21 at the Tower Theatre, 876 E. 900 South.