“Paradise is Burning” screened as part of The 59th Chicago International Film Festival on October 18, 2023, as part of the International Competition.
Writer-director Mika Gustafson’s “Paradise is Burning” is a union of debuts. It’s her narrative feature film debut, and the three actresses at its center have it as the first line on their resumes. Yet despite a core of debutants, the film feels nothing like an amateur endeavor. Every sequence and performance pulses with feeling, and “Paradise is Burning” asserts its impact through every minute.
Laura (Bianca Delbravo), 16, Mira (Dilvin Asaad), 12, and Steffi (Safira Mossberg), 7, are three sisters living without a parental figure. While we don’t know anything about the whereabouts of their father, we know that their mother left them around Christmas time. It’s now summer, and they’ve been raising themselves ever since. Scheming supermarket heists for food, breaking into homes to hang out with their friends, and running wild in the fields of Sweden, the sisters’ day to day lives are defined by freedom.
When Child Protective Services calls looking to schedule a meeting with their mother, the threat of being found out looms, as does the risk of the sisters being split up in foster care lest they figure out a scheme to trick the system. Laura, the eldest, takes the call. Choosing to keep the issue from her sisters, she spends her days trying to find someone to impersonate their mother. Yet her increased absence and elusive dishonesty begins to drive a wedge in the trio, as each sister embarks on their own new stages of girlhood, all coming of age in different ways that cause their own collisions.
“Paradise is Burning” gallivants through its narrative with as much gusto as the sisters do through their days. It gleefully exudes the joys of chaotic freedom and adoring sisterly love. Whether Mira is lovingly washing Steffi’s hair or rolling in the dirt fistfighting a classmate, Laura oversees, hunting down soap and detergent or throwing punches in their defense. There’s equal parts laughter and treachery as the girls navigate the responsibility of living, prematurely carrying the weight of adulthood while maintaining a firm grip on the disorder of growing up.
Delbravo, Asaad, and Mossberg have indubitable chemistry. Their sibling bond feels wholly authentic, a testament to the palpable, thoughtful writing of Gustafson but also the undeniable empathy of each actress. The closeness of sisterhood is embodied both in the semi-maternal care and the inherent bickering and fighting, yet through it all, the performers never lose the underlying layer of love that motivates it all.
When Laura begins a friendship with an older woman nearby, Hanna (Ida Engvoll), she dips her toes into true independence. Engvoll gives an excellent performance, embodying a woman who’s lost touch with her youthful wild, finding it in Laura as Laura finds comfort in her. Meanwhile as Mira and Steffi are left to their own devices, Mira connects with the couple next door, finding a pseudo-parental solace and Steffi connects with another young girl she meets in the woods nearby, spreading her social wings and discovering the power of relationships outside of her sisters. As each girl climbs the ladder of coming of age, even with anger and indignance at their increasing, but natural distance, they continue to find home in each other.
“Paradise is Burning” is a resounding document of girlhood. With fun, fury, upset, and discovery, it reverberates with the confounding nature of growing up and the comforting center of sisterhood. The love impacted into every sequence compiles into a film that deeply breathes the air of feminine spirit at its most pure and unadulterated. It depicts it with romanticism, adoration, and perhaps nostalgic envy, inspiring a longing and remembered tenderness for the stage of life many of us were too eager to surpass.