Austrian weirdmeister Ulrich Seidl’s sometimes grueling but consistently compelling “Paradise” trilogy concludes on a surprisingly wistful, tender note with “Paradise: Hope,” an account of a teenager experiencing first love at fat camp. This is the most accessible, commercially viable installment of the three, even allowing for the fact that it pivots on the taboo subject of desire across a 40-year age gap, handled here with discretion, sensitivity and admirable honesty. Takings have been strictly niche in the few territories where the other chapters have bowed theatrically, but the full set will find peace in the ancillary afterlife with arthouse auds.
First seen briefly at the very beginning of the trilogy’s first installment, “Paradise: Love,” Melanie (Melanie Lenz, a non-pro thesp who was 13 when the film was shot) is the daughter of “Love’s” heroine, Teresa (never seen here), and the niece of “Faith’s” Anna Maria (Maria Hofstaetter). The story opens with Anna Maria dropping off Melanie, nicknamed Melli, at a camp for overweight teens in Austria’s Wechsel Mountains.
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This bleakly austere suburban facility looks more like a disused mental asylum or an open prison than the bucolic settings of Hollywood summer-camp movies like “Meatballs” or “Little Darlings.” It’s supervised by a fierce fitness instructor (Michael Thomas) and a sternly svelte nutritionist (Vivian Bartsch, a Seidl alum like Thomas), who put the kids through endless exercise paces, filmed in the director’s trademark tableau shots.
Mostly not-so-happy campers, judging by overheard phone calls home to usually divorced parents, the other kids are a ragtag bunch ranging in proportions from sexually confident, supersized 16-year-old Verena (Verena Lehbauer, a charismatic scene-stealer) to a small tween boy who barely looks overweight, let alone obese. They’re a naturally sympathetic band of misfits, much easier to root for than the protags of Seidl’s previous two films, and one of the pic’s most endearing traits is the way the writer-helmer draws out their natural, artless charm in the semi-improvised dorm-room banter as they talk about their parents, food cravings and budding sexual feelings.
Shy but fetching Melli develops a raging first crush on the camp’s never-named inhouse doctor (fiftysomething legit thesp Joseph Lorenz), a gangly, clownish type who’s flattered, embarrassed and shamefully drawn to Melli as well. Striking exactly the right note of queasy awkwardness, their flirtation escalates subtly from faux-childish games of “playing doctor” to more overt moments of intimacy that climax with barely more than hugs, yet hugs charged with a complex mixture of erotic longing and quasi-parent-child feeling. It’s not clear whether the doctor has ever done this sort of thing before, but he’s definitely, perhaps unconsciously, grooming her in textbook pedophile fashion.
However, in keeping with the naked honesty of Seidl’s work, which has never shied away from ugly or uncomfortable truths, it’s equally obvious that Melli is an eager participant, even an instigator, in this game of seduction — not that it lets the doctor off the moral hook. Arguably the film’s saddest moment is when Melli tells Verena she thinks the reason the doctor won’t have sex with her is because she’s too fat or not pretty enough, not because she’s only 13. Like her mother in “Love,” Melli is alternately filled with self-loathing about her own zaftig body and unashamed to flaunt it in short skirts for a disastrous night down at the local dance hall with Verena. Give the kid a few years and a liberal-arts degree, and she could be Austria’s answer to Lena Dunham in “Girls.”
Not unlike Dunham’s work, “Paradise: Hope” has humor and warmth, and shows more genuine affection and kindness toward its characters than Seidl usually allows. Despite the sinister undertow, the narrative doesn’t go to the darkest places it could, making for a relatively upbeat, nay hopeful ending to a potentially depressing if formally magnificent trilogy. Tech credits are just as precisely tooled as those of “Love” and “Faith,” with the welcome addition of a crisp 91-minute running time that adds a certain jauntiness to the proceedings.