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Child brings together a dysfunctional family in Paradise

PARADISE

Written and directed

by Mary Agnes Donoghue.

Starring Don Johnson, Melanie Griffith,

Elijah Wood and Thora Birch.

By JULIA LEE

FAR FROM BEING A FILM ABOUT A fantasy land, Paradise is about reality and emotional truths. Its depiction of a dysfunctional husband and wife and the child that brings them together is at once sensitive and funny, making Paradise a sure bet for one of the fall's most popular movies.

Willard Young (portrayed by the adorable Elijah Wood) is a 10-year-old boy conveniently shuffled off to the rural town of Paradise for the summer while his mother tries to mend her life. Although an extremely precocious child -- he attends prep school on a scholarship -- Willard is painfully shy. He soon discovers that his guardians, Ben and Lily Reed (Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) still have not recovered from the shock of their own son's death. In the process, the couple have distanced themselves from one another. Lily, numbed by the pain of her loss, passively watches as each day goes by, while Ben finds it more and more difficult to live with a woman who was once carefree, spirited and filled with excitement.

Since the Reeds pay more attention to their own problems than to Willard, the boy looks for a friend, and meets Billie Pike (Thora Birch), a spirited, nine-year-old tomboy. The two youngsters entertain themselves by spying on her sister's romantic escapades, throwing worms down at a funeral congregation and keeping each other company. They even venture to the neighboring town in hope of finding Billie's father, a roller-skating daredevil. Although the movie is slow-moving at times, the audience cannot help but be enchanted by the twosome's idyllic summer.

By contrast, Ben and Lily hardly communicate. Seemingly cold and diffident at the onset, Ben slowly warms up to Willard. He soon finds himself actually enjoying the time they spend together flying a model World War II plane, fishing and playing poker. (Willard often outplays Ben.) The two characters develop a relationship of love and respect.

Lily, however, finds herself incapable of being Willard's temporary mother without suffering emotional pain. She desperately needs her husband's love, but ultimately drives him away with the wall she has created to protect herself. Willard's presence, though, eventually brings the troubled pair back together.

Paradise may be too calm and serene a picture compared to all its action-packed competitors, but it is far from boring. Although a few of the nature scenes with exotic birds and animals are overdone, overall, the lush forests and river panoramas are soothing and relaxing. The star-studded technical cast brings together a wealth of experience to make this movie both entertaining and heartwarming. Director/screenwriter Mary Agnes Donoghue previously wrote the screenplay for Beaches. In her directorial debut, Donoghue brilliantly captures the essence of all the characters. Her screenplay, based on the French film Le Grand Chemin, is well-written and leaves no loose ends.

Real-life couple Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith both give impressive performances. Johnson, previously seen only as a flaky actor, shows great talent in his role as a sensitive character hidden beneath a mask of emotional suffering. Melanie Griffith's personal warmth exudes through her character, allowing the audience to perceive Lily as a reserved but not cold. Central to the movie are the two child actors, Elijah Wood and Thora Birch. They are the ones who capture the hearts of the audience. In all, Paradise is not to be missed; it should prove itself to be one of the most successful films of the year.