If close female friendships were a dance, they could well be ballet: intimate, harmonious, demanding and — when friends mean everything in one’s formative years — brutally high-stakes.
In “Birds of Paradise,” writer-director Sarah Adina Smith (“Legion”) tells a scrumptious and entertaining tale about the go-for-broke nature of youthful companionship, spinning a cunning yarn of female enmity and camaraderie set against the backdrop of Paris’ ultra-competitive professional ballet scene. Her source is A.K. Small’s “Bright Burning Stars,” a bestselling young-adult novel Smith adapts with grown-up panache, without shortchanging the girly pleasures of the genre while upgrading them with a healthy dose of fiery twists and genuinely mature sensuality seldom associated with YA.
In the dimly-lit and sensory ecosystem that Smith creates, every out-of-place move in friendship and art comes at a high cost to sisterly dancers studying at a prestigious ballet school. Smith has fun with this setting’s prickly and double-edged dynamics, even when an uneven pacing works against her at times. Drawing viewers in are a pair of magnetic performances by Diana Silvers (“Ma,” “Booksmart”) — an actor blessed with Anne Hathaway’s wide-set, innocently cavernous gaze — and Kristine Froseth (“The Assistant”), terrifically emitting a stony sense of intimidation. The former plays the middle-class Kate Sanders, an aspiring American ballerina who arrives at the elite Parisian institution on a hard-earned scholarship. As the upper-class star ballerina Marine Elise Durand, the latter quickly establishes herself as Kate’s nemesis once Kate unknowingly offends her with an innocent remark about Marine’s brother, who had recently died of suicide.
Roommates and opponents on the road to the school’s dreamy year-end prize — a once-in-a-lifetime invitation to join the Opéra National de Paris — Kate and Marine frequently step on each other’s toes in the early days. Tomboyish, relatively inelegant and from limited means, Kate fails to roll with the school’s classist demands at first, routinely ranking at the bottom of her practice sessions. Meanwhile, the icily sophisticated chain-smoker Marine acts like she has the whole place wrapped around her finger. And for good reason. A favorite of the academy with her talent and porcelain-doll beauty, she regularly gets praised and paired with her class’s best male dancer Felipe, a heartthrob with his own agenda.
Before you can say “Black Swan,” Smith summons equally close comparisons to another dance-centric flick: Her visuals telegraph a dark-hued environment akin to that of “Suspiria” (the distressingly dusky one by Luca Gudagnino, rather than Dario Argento’s crimson-soaked classic). In that regard, Shaheen Seth’s cinematography is amply shadowy, while Nora Takacs Ekberg’s production design across cozy dorm rooms, stark studios and psychedelic nightclubs is suitably draped with dust, glitter, clutter and every lived-in detail in between. That’s the playground in which Kate and Marine sashay and pirouette around one another, while navigating their budding sexualities, fleeting romantic interests and respective desires to whisk away the grand prize.
Once they suddenly become joined at the hip through a newfound sisterhood, the duo take an oath on the enigmatic Marine’s command, pledging that they would either triumph together or not claim any winnings at all. All of this happens under the prying nose of the conservatory’s disciplined head Madame Brunelle (a superbly cast Jacqueline Bisset), who pushes her students from one witchy extreme to the next — including falls, bloody toes, tears and plenty of pill-popping — as Kate finds herself on the fast track to success.
Impatiently, Smith rushes through the details of how Marine and Kate become good friends. It all unfolds so quickly that one wonders just how much richer “Birds of Paradise” might have felt had Smith further developed the film’s first act. But the filmmaker thankfully makes up for that shortcoming elsewhere, keeping Kate’s class-based struggles relatable, the suspense alive and the audience on their toes in the movie’s later segments.
Is Marine truly friends with Kate or is she using her as a pawn? What’s the real nature of her brother’s suicide? What familial secrets is she hiding? As “Birds of Paradise” reveals its (admittedly predictable) secrets one by one, it does so with style and a merited sense of confidence so assertively that even the biggest skeptics of the genre might pause before dismissing it as just another slight YA entry.
Most impressively, Smith demonstrates that she deeply grasps both the fluid eroticism and the emotional openness that are inherent to ballet. Silvers and Froseth do most of their own dancing under Smith’s direction. The latter in particular leaves an impression with a modern solo routine amid a number of well-choreographed dance sequences accompanied by a nervy pop-synth score. Even when Budapest as a questionable Paris stand-in threatens to sabotage’s the film’s authentic feel, the vulnerably willowy Silvers and icily poised Froseth sell their world’s perils plausibly, maintaining an enthralling kind of screen chemistry that elevates this deceptively young-skewing fare.