Runtime: 90 minutes
Director: Ron Howard
By Caz Armstrong
This is an emotionally powerful yet strangely surface-level documentary which celebrates community and human spirit in the face of absolute devastation.
Directed by Ron Howard, the film follows the community of Paradise, California which was destroyed by wildfire in 2018. Thousands of homes were burnt to the ground, along with schools, hospitals and shops.
We see the residents trying to rebuild their lives, their homes, and maintain their community in the face of devastation from fire, finances and bureaucracy.
The opening ten minutes are harrowing and terrifying. Using footage from mobile phones, CCTV and dashcams we are put right in the shoes of the residents trying to escape. With only minutes to spare they gathered what they could carry and fled for their lives.
Surrounded by burning houses, trees and cars, driving over burning debris and praying for their lives, this is absolutely shocking real footage. Especially so knowing that 85 people tragically lost their lives.
After this opener though the film takes a slower and more surface-level approach to documenting the next year in the lives of the surviving residents. While still incredibly emotional, there is no one main struggle for us to follow and really get to grips with.
It touches on various aspects of the rebuild without giving much detail of any. We see the residents struggling to find temporary housing, replacement classrooms, compensation, and the right to rebuild. There are tense public meetings with the company responsible for starting the fire, dilemmas arising from contaminated water and attempts to plan a graduation ceremony with no school.
“Viewers have to make a lot of assumptions about the details and are left with several questions throughout.”
But each of these elements is merely touched upon. We don’t know who was insured, what was paid out, whether how the water would be cleaned. All of these would be incredible gripping stories in their own right. I’d love to hear more about how the community overcame the battle with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to get the debris cleared and planning permission to rebuild. Instead, we are left to assume.
Non-American audiences are used to seeing high school spirit on-screen so we get that people really throw themselves into it. But it is a little hard to really understand how and why it affects an entire community. I couldn’t care less what my local high school sports team is. Graduation ceremonies are also something we’ve seen a lot but don’t generally feel that emotional connection with its importance.
“As a celebration of human determination, sacrifice and community spirit this film is an inspiration.”
So its use in the film is a shorthand that we can understand but not really feel, and it’s not explained in words. Nevertheless, we can see means a great deal to the community of Paradise to have something to celebrate together, and how important it is to be able to hold the high school graduation after their lives have been so devastated.
As a celebration of human determination, sacrifice and community spirit this film is an inspiration. But despite an intense opening, this power doesn’t trickle down into the rest of the film. It touches on a lot of things but doesn’t explore or explain any of them in much depth. Viewers have to make a lot of assumptions about the details and are left with several questions throughout.
The result is a film which feels meandering and wastes the impact of the first ten minutes.