Bonnie and Clyde” on a budget, “Paradise Falls” reps an impressive, if rough-hewn, feature debut. Set in the rural American South during the Depression, this co-winner of the best picture award at the Hollywood Film Festival is a textured tale of lives riven by economic hardship and desperation that leads to lawlessness. While the filmmakers make much of their locations and story, the film cannot overcome its modest resources and absence of marquee names, which will put a definite crimp on its commercial potential. Its qualities indicate niche theatrical bookings, but pic’s primary revenue will come from small-screen sales.
The basic scenario charts familiar terrain. In the mountains of North Carolina in 1934, the people with small farms are having a difficult time getting by. With banks foreclosing on their properties, people are moving to big cities. It all seems like a nightmare that happens only to others; few see disaster coming until it’s too late.
Henry Bancroft (Sean Bridgers) and Oshel Hooper (Christopher Berry) are farmers’ sons with more dreams than prospects. Oshel’s disillusionment stems from more than just failed crops: His father died during the first world war, and he views society as chaotic and spins wild yarns of robbing the rich (or their minions) and giving back to “the people” to right the balance. It’s only when Henry realizes that his father’s farm is about to be taken over by the bank that he starts to take his buddy’s cant seriously.
One of the things that sets “Paradise Falls” apart from a legion of 1930s bank robber sagas is the manner in which it presents the evolution of these would-be felons. Neither of its principals has the faintest idea how to proceed, yet they push each other’s buttons in such a way that creates momentum.
There’s nothing grand or operatic about the piece. The dirt is real and the plots, heists and getaways are straightforward. This twosome will continue until someone gets shot.
The script by Sean Bridgers and Sue Ellen Bridgers is grim, simple and strangely poetic. Director Nick Searcy manages to make virtues of a low budget. His amateur and semi-pro cast has a direct manner that feels authentic, imbuing the pic with the sense of a bygone era. He also has a deft way of incorporating locations into the drama that are both functional and unusual.