The misconceived documentary Reel Paradise was packaged by its subject: former independent-film producer John Pierson. Pierson has become an indie celebrity of sorts, writing the book Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes (about the independent-film boom he helped to create) and hosting the IFC series Split Screen. John and his wife Janet showed Seven Chances at their wedding. "That's what we do," John says. "Helping movies into the world."
On Split Screen, Pierson once sent a filmmaker to show his movie in the remotest cinema in the world, the 288-seat 180 Meridian Theatre, on Taveuni Island in Fiji. On a whim, Pierson decided to buy the theater, move his family to the island, and show movies for free for one year. Pierson brought in documentarian Steve James to record the last month on the island, but what James found was mostly family and community tension brought to a head, with insolent 16-year-old Georgia and sarcastic 13-year-old Wyatt giving their parents a hard time.
"I don't want to get into the noble savage thing," says Pierson, before claiming, "This is an island where Curly is God" (what, and Staten Island isn't?). John and Janet reveal themselves to be quintessential ugly Americans just aware enough of their faults constantly to justify them ("Isn't paradise doing what you want to do?" asks Janet). Apparently lousy parents, John and Janet yell at each other while Wyatt tries to read the latest Harry Potter. The Piersons' inability to deal with a robbery on a film night—which John sees as emblematic of a greater ingratitude—becomes a found-comedy centerpiece, with a useless, drunk landlord blithely ignorant of his own incompetence and insensitivity.
As for the Fijians, they have a passive-aggressive relationship to John's quest. They're as fickle as the American crowd, relying on word-of-mouth and gravitating to the basest entertainment (Pierson's biggest victory is drawing an appreciative closing-night crowd to Steamboat Bill, Jr.). John's most understandable frustration is his inability to find a reliable projectionist among the locals: punctuality and sobriety aren't among the Fijian men's ideals.
It's the kids who prove personable to the natives—peer friendships wrench painfully apart at the end of the year, while John and Janet seem relieved to escape. Wyatt displays plenty of teenage contrariness, but proves capable (by confidently filling in for his ailing dad) and maddeningly insightful (of his father, he notes, "He's always saying he doesn't like to be in America, but he likes his American Way"). Georgia is hell on wheels, walking all over her pushover parents and basking in her white-girl cachet, but she's at least able to bond with her Fijian peers.
Late-to-the-party James isn't to blame for the limitations imposed on him, but the narrative he constructs amounts to an embarrassing home movie. Press notes highlight the angle of Pierson's battle with Catholic Church conservatives, a "storyline" that fizzles in minutes. The emotional train wrecks can be voyeuristically interesting, and the kvetchy generation-gap comedy almost succeeds as an subversive satire of the generation and culture gaps. Ultimately, however, James fails to justify this for-hire, backfired vanity project in an age glutted with reality TV.