Bianca Delbravo marks an impactful, powerful acting debut with her performance as 16-year-old Laura, a girl torn between childhood and adulthood, between carefree vibes and crushing responsibility, the impending weight of the future and the irresistible pull of the present. Embodying her character with warmth, humour and tragedy, and transmuting complex experiences from page to screen, the Scandi actress is likely to go far.
The same can be said for newcomer Dilvin Assad, playing her playful, silly, 12-year-old sister Mira, jealous of Laura’s leadership role and looking to carve out her own unique experiences. Or first-timer Safira Mossberg, playing the seven-year-old Steffi; filled with curiosity but also vulnerability and confusion. The strength of casting pushes Mika Gustafson’s Swedish debut Paradise is Burning along nicely, forming a family unit you can’t help but fall in love with.
They are defined by absence. Their father presumably dead and their mother missing since Christmas, they spend their summer days playing in fields, breaking into people’s houses to use the pool, experimenting with cigarettes and alcohol, getting into fights, adopting stray dogs, arguing with each other and even shoplifting from the supermarket. Adapting to unfortunate circumstances, they lean on each other through the worst and the best of times.
The films of Lukas Moodysson spring to mind, such as the excellent Fucking Amal (1998), given the way that foul language and horrible cruelty are a realistic constant of kids interacting with one another — especially when the parental figures aren’t around. Using the conceit of a looming social services visit to create a sense of impending doom, Mika Gustafson’s debut is free to focus on the smaller details, like the girls celebrating Mira’s first period with a wine ceremony, or a devious hand trick, or how to break into someone’s house, giving the viewer a sense of ingenuity as well as observation.
But the social service visit is on its way. After a chance encounter hiding from a man whose house she just broke into, Laura strikes up an unusual friendship with a lonely woman named Hannah (Ida Engvoll). While showing her the ins and outs of breaking into people’s houses — to eat their crisps, read their diaries, even smoke their weed — she is quietly determined to rope her into pretending to be her mother. Engvoll is excellent; you sense that she wants a daughter just as much as Laura needs a mother — a relationship reflected in Mira’s B-plot friendship with a wannabe karaoke singer. Avoiding the pitfalls of over-warmed Scandi depression (i.e. the brutal Beautiful Beings (Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson, 2022)), and opting for a sunny, summery tone, Paradise is Burning has a certain sweetness to it, one that will linger long after the film has finished.
What a lot of euro-realist dramas forget sometimes in their portrayal of youth is that while misery might not be very far away, there’s still ample opportunity to experience unfettered joy. Gustafson, co-writing with Alexander Öhrstrand, understands that the drama is elevated by comedy — not just more drama — investing us deeply into the fate of the characters. While certain musical moments hammer this transience on us a little too much, the soft and warm, yet vibrant colours of the handheld cinematography immerse us into their perspective, creating an enchanting ode to adolescent yearning.