AFI 2020 – Found Family and Femininity in ‘She Paradise’

Coming of age films have the rare opportunity of exploring all facets of the young adult experience: the good, the bad, and the ugly. However, apart from notable examples like Moonlight, nonwhite teenagers are rarely given the opportunity to have their teen experiences shown on screen. The center of the genre is mostly white teens, which makes any story with a predominantly or completely nonwhite cast a breath of fresh air.

Maya Cozier’s debut She Paradise, a feature length version of her short film of the same name, is both a love letter to Trinidad’s club culture and a story about the ups and downs of trying to grow up too fast. It’s a beautiful film, both thematically and cinematically, and isn’t afraid to dive headfirst into heavy topics of grooming, coercion, power dynamics, and slut shaming. Although some of the plot beats are cliche, She Paradise is still a fresh new entry to this era of coming of age stories.

Sparkle (Onessa Nestor) is a seventeen year old aspiring dancer living with her grandfather (Michael Cherrie) in the capital of Trinidad. She’s inspired to try out for the Carnival dance team out of both genuine curiosity and because her grandfather’s jewelry business is dwindling. Although her initial audition goes poorly, she befriends one of the lead dancers and joins the team, partially influenced by giving out chains her grandfather made to the leader of the team. The sprawling shots of Port of Spain– especially the neon saturated Carnival dance scenes– are reminiscent of Euphoria or American Honey and create a beautiful contrast between Sparkle’s day and night life. As she becomes more involved with the team, she begins partying and develops feelings for the (much older) club promoter Skinny (Kern Mollineu) despite nearly everyone telling her that she shouldn’t act on them. Much like other dance-based films like Step Up, there’s drama surrounding who makes the final Carnival team as well as Sparkle getting distracted by Skinny and the allure of her new mature persona. 

The dynamic between Sparkle and the three top girls in Port of Spain’s Carnival dancers– Mica (Chelsey Rampersand), Shan (Denisia Latchman), and queen bee Diamond (Kimberly Crichton)– is the true heart of the film. At first, it’s Mica and Sparkle that form a friendship around Sparkle’s naivety and want to join the team; Mica becomes Sparkle’s mentor and shows her the ropes around dance and how to deal with the team. She eases Sparkle into a more adult world. After Sparkle’s Papa rejects her, calling her a jamesse or harlot and kicking her out of the house, Diamond begins to take more of a motherly role with her. It becomes more obvious that Diamond has purer intent behind her care of Sparkle than Mica when Sparkle becomes more involved with Skinny: Diamond advises her against pursuing anything with him as he’s much older and has a sketchy history with women while Mica encourages her to go for it. When Skinny finally makes a sexual advance on Sparkle while she’s extremely inebriated, Mica does nothing but Diamond– in a complete break from her HBIC persona– diffuses the situation and comforts Sparkle as she hunches over the toilet. The script, cowritten by Cozier and Melina Brown, never feels forced and it, along with main casts’ onscreen chemistry, helps sell the dynamic between the leads of the Carnival dance crew.
Although the story is nothing new, She Paradise is still a compelling, gorgeous coming of age tale. It’s unabashedly and inextricably Carribean and it’s obvious that Cozier put all her care and love for Trinidad in the visuals of the film. It revels in the joys of reaching young adulthood and finding oneself as well as the cons like manipulation from those looking for sexual conquests and betrayal from those considered friends. She Paradise is another fresh take on the slowly diversifying coming of age story.

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