Movie Guru: ‘Rebuilding Paradise’ doc details 2018 California fire, available online
There’s more to “Rebuilding Paradise” than meets the eye.
The Ron Howard-helmed documentary, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is open via online theaters, seems at first like the kind of stock sentimental journey Howard is known for. And, to be fair, there is plenty of tear-jerking moments as we watch the residents of a town wiped out by fire slowly trying to piece themselves and their community back together.
If you look past the rousing emotional moments, however, the movie tells a much more complicated story than that. The third act has a definite bittersweet edge, and if you’ve been paying attention the signs have been there from the very beginning. Some people are intent on coming back to Paradise, but for others true healing won’t happen until they’re far away from the tragedy that shaped them so thoroughly.
For those not familiar with the story, the town of Paradise, California, was destroyed by a huge wildfire on Nov. 8, 2018. Howard brings us into the moment using cell phone videos shot by the fleeing residents, and it’s far more terrifying than any fire sequence in a fictional movie. We find out later that the total death count was 86 people, along with a host of environmental issues caused by burning plastics and chemicals.
Though larger issues are touched on, including forestry issues and the fact that Pacific Gas and Electric was ultimately held responsible for the fire. All of it, however, is filtered through the impact it has on the lives of individual residents within the year immediately following the fire. There are a hundred different issues Howard hints at that are interesting enough to get their own documentary. Those stories, however, are not the ones Howard wants to tell.
The stories he does tell unfold gently, without any additional commentary from Howard. The only voices we here are from the people involved, captured in significant moments as they were living them. Though the technique sacrifices some of the narrative focus usually found in a documentary, it allows for a subtlety and complexity that wouldn’t necessarily be there if Howard interjected himself more into the story. We see characters coming to realizations in real time, often not realizing the larger implications of what they’ve gone through until weeks or even months later.
In the end, it feels like the documentary’s title applies more to the residents of Paradise than the actual city itself. And just like any structure that’s burned to the ground, rebuilt people sometimes end up in an entirely different shape than they were before.
How to watch ‘Rebuilding Paradise’
Go to https://films.nationalgeographic.com/rebuilding-paradise#screenings and pick an online screening in your state. There’s no set time to any of them — the movies work like any video rental through Google Play or iTunes. With the virtual screenings, however, the $12 ticket price goes toward supporting an independent theater or arts center in your state.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.