It would be easy — and not especially inaccurate — to dismiss “Birds of Paradise” as a YA riff on “Black Swan,” but this giallo-inflected ballet thriller proves too intoxicating and possessed by its own spirits to be relegated to the shadows of its influences. Besides, the movie owes just as much to Luca Guadagnino’s recent “Suspiria” remake — if not for its supernatural menace, then at least for its witchy mood. Directed by Sarah Adina Smith (“Buster’s Mal Heart”), she brings texture to a conventional story about ultra-competitive teenage girls, turning it into something more like a crucible for the survival of their very souls.
Okay, so most YA adaptations are super derivative, but at least this one has style. And a real sense of danger. And Jacqueline Bisset as a French dance instructor who refers to her students as “rats,” and lets them call her “le Diable” in return.
“Birds of Paradise” begins as a fish-out-of-water story when a cash-strapped Virginia teen named Kate (“Booksmart” breakout Diana Silvers) tiptoes into an elite Paris ballet academy on someone else’s dime. (Her benefactor’s identity becomes a major source of conflict down the line.) A gawky American and daddy’s girl whose look and demeanor alike are equal parts Anne Hathaway in “The Devil Wears Prada” and Jessica Paré in “Mad Men,” Kate has only been dancing for five years. That makes her an outlier in a place that has practically served as an orphanage for the other students (whose parents are alive, but rich enough to pretend otherwise). She has a forthright confidence and a latent awareness of her beauty, but she isn’t sure how either of those attributes will help her earn a spot on the city’s fabled ballet corp.
For every white swan, a black swan must be her foil. Meet the pursed and powerful Marine (Kristine Froseth, star of Netflix’s “The Society”), a tightly controlled tornado of raw anger and grace who’s lived at the academy since she was eight, when her mom became the American ambassador to France (her dad is a businessman who specializes in “milks”). Marine would be queen bee in a less cutthroat school, but here she’s just the damaged bunhead whose épaulment has been all out whack since her twin brother and dance partner died the previous year.
There’s almost as much blood in the water as there is in the pointe shoes, and it’s driving everyone into a frenzy. When Kate makes the faux pas of mentioning Marine’s lost half, the latter almost rips her head off. What are the odds that both girls — competing for the same position, and for the sexual attention of the straight cavalier who lifts his dance partners so high it looks as if they’re flying — would be forced to share the same musty dorm room? Two girls, one full-size bed, and zero visible pores between them.
Less predictable is what happens next: Kate and Marine go to the kind of underground club that only exists in a teenager’s fever dream of what adult nightlife might look like (on their way in, a woman dressed as a goddess or a Gorgon makes the girls swallow psychedelic worms), and engage in a life-or-death modern-dance off that ends with them accepting each other as the dearest of sisters. They even make a pact to win the prize together or not at all.
Once poised to be a violent tale about the pecking order between prima ballerinas, “Birds of Paradise” molts into a knottier and more nuanced story of two girls trying to fly in perfect formation. Alas, “nobody pays for perfection,” explains the man between them. “They pay for romance.” And you can rest assured that we get our money’s worth.
Adapted from the 2019 novel “Bright Burning Stars” by A.K. Small, “Birds of Paradise” overachieves because it leverages the standard-issue mishegoss of backstage melodrama into something more elemental. It becomes a coming-of-age fable that cocoons physical desire and personal achievement inside the glow of giallo-lite, until its characters start to cast shadows big enough to swallow their bodies whole. For all the finesse and calculation that each girl brings to her ballet and to the social maneuvering they engage in after dark (brace for the silliest movie three-way this side of “The Mule”), they’re powerless to control the way they act around each other, and the respective spirits that possess both of them to dance.
For Kate, every sauté and soubresaut is like a séance for her dead mother; for Marine, who was born into a pas de deux that’s become a pas seul, it’s as if she can still feel her brother’s hands around her waist (among other places, if you believe the salacious gossip that’s been going around school). Each has her own urgent reasons to remain en pointe, and Smith uses class to complicate the issue even further.
The script can only do so much to unravel the basic archetypes of its source material and so many other stories like it — Bisset and the vermin-sized gas chamber she keeps on her desk notwithstanding — Smith uses money to mess with our sympathies in a number of shrewd ways, especially in a third act that pirouettes toward a different kind of spiritual transference between its characters.
“Birds of Paradise” doesn’t have a big plot twist per se, nor does it go for any genuine scares (a glibly imagined suicide offers the only ‘gotcha!’ moment in a movie that was better off with none), but it strikes a tone of dangerous enchantment that primes you to receive the plot on a representational level — in that sense, not unlike a ballet. Budapest plays Paris with a darkness that the City of Lights doesn’t always let people see, while a foreboding synth-pop soundtrack maintains a degree of Frenchness that’s further upholstered by the softness of Shaheen Seth’s cinematography. The whole movie has the feeling of a dream that could turn into a nightmare at any minute.
The cast is likewise ethereal. Silvers radiates the focused vulnerability of someone who’s both preternaturally gifted and completely out of their element; if her performance falters when Kate loses the moral high ground, it still allows Kate to be the rare post-pubescent heroine whose passivity is as compelling as the boldest choices she makes.
Ultimately, however, this film belongs to Froseth. She has the richer part, and she sissonnes and sus-sous with such mesmerizing abandon that she seems to travel with her own spotlight. Cold but never frigid, empathetic but never greedy, Froseth defies our expectations at every turn, gradually endowing Marine with a degree of reality almost never seen in the YA genre. By the time the movie is over, all of Marine’s hacky details — her neglectful parents, the cute gig musician she meets at one of the embassy galas, etc. — seem as if they must have belonged to someone else. Froseth may be stuck in a certain kind of movie, but she’s reaching for the stars.
“Birds of Paradise” is, inescapably, a YA adaptation, and the harder it flaps its wings the more you can feel it brushing against the ceiling of that cage. That shouldn’t be too much of a bother for the film’s target audience, but there are moments — the climactic dance sequence most of all — that almost seem as if they were sabotaged to keep things simple enough for Amazon Prime’s algorithm to understand. Whatever compromises were required of Smith, she holds fast to the soul of a movie that ultimately cares less about how high Kate and Marine can fly than it does the exotic truths they might only be able to learn as they fall.
“Birds of Paradise” will be available to stream on Amazon Prime starting Friday, September 24.