Birds Of Paradise Review: Not Quite Black Swan, But Seductively Entertaining

While Birds of Paradise stumbles in some areas, it then pirouettes into something darkly intriguing that will have viewers waiting on the next step.

To be a ballerina is to have incredible discipline and determination. With all the sacrifices — both physical and emotional — that go into ballet training, it’s no wonder that the profession makes for such great drama. The most famous example of this is perhaps Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Amazon’s latest original movie, Birds of Paradise, might not be as highbrow, but it’s still fascinatingly entertaining. Written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith and based on the novel Bright Burning Stars by A.K. Small, the atmospheric feature digs into a thorny relationship between two aspiring dancers to varying degrees of success. While Birds of Paradise stumbles in some areas, it then pirouettes into something darkly intriguing that will have viewers waiting on the next step.

The film begins when working class dancer Kate (Booksmart‘s Diana Silvers) earns a scholarship to a prestigious and competitive ballet academy in Paris, France. With her gym clothes and Converse, she sticks out like a sore thumb and almost immediately earns the ire of returning star Marine (Kristine Froseth). Marine is back after the tragic death of her twin brother, and both she and Kate have their eyes on their school’s prize: A contract with the Opéra national de Paris. What first begins as an intense rivalry turns into something far more twisted as Marine and Kate draw closer, particularly after they pledge to win the prize together.

Diana Silvers, Kristine Froseth, and Solomon Golding in Birds of Paradise
Diana Silvers, Kristine Froseth, and Solomon Golding in Birds of Paradise

In bringing the academy to life, Smith has created a hypnotic world for her two leading ladies. Birds of Paradise is a sensual fever dream. Smith puts particular emphasis on the inherent sexuality in ballet, which lends a hazy quality to the proceedings. She’s aided by the solid work of production designer Nora Takacs Ekberg. The dance studio is deliberately chilly, with its white walls and wide open space emphasizing the brutal beauty of ballet training, while the room Kate and Marine share is warmer, cozier, and the perfect place for their bond to grow. And grow it does, walking a fine line between rivalry, friendship, and romance. Smith speeds up the early stages of their relationship in a way that is a bit too jarring — following a substance-heavy night out, Marine and Kate are soon the best of friends, which is a surprise since their first meeting sees them come to blows. A more gradual evolution might’ve better suited the complex relationship at the center of Birds of Paradise.

When it really gets going, though, Marine and Kate’s dynamic is fascinating to witness. While there are other characters who flit in and out of the drama, like alluring star dancer Felipe (Daniel Camargo) and demanding instructor Madame Brunelle (Jacqueline Bisset, who is perfectly icy), Birds of Paradise belongs to its two leading ladies. Marine is still reeling from the loss of her brother Ollie; he was her dance partner and, if rumors are to be believed, they shared a very deep bond. Though she initially views Kate as her ultimate competitor, Marine soon comes to rely on her as her new confidant. The question at the heart of Birds of Paradise then becomes: Does she truly care about Kate for who she is, or does she just want another Ollie? Froseth portrays Marine’s internal conflicts well, from her persisting grief to her resentment towards her overbearing parents. She moves between vulnerability and vicious determination well, helping to make Marine the most compelling figure in Birds of Paradise.

Diana Silvers and Kristine Froseth in Birds of Paradise
Diana Silvers and Kristine Froseth in Birds of Paradise

Of course, Kate’s journey is just as vital to the story, and Silvers, following her roles in Booksmart and Ma, continues to cement herself as a budding movie star. Kate’s motivations are more cut and dry than Marine’s, but Silvers gives her heroine enough layers to keep viewers guessing about what will happen next. Smith directs parts of Birds of Paradise like a horror movie, bringing up shades of gray in the girls’ battle to win the prize. There’s a level of suspense leading up to the end as a winner is declared, though the movie’s final moments don’t quite land with the satisfaction one would hope. That could be partially because Smith falls back on surreal, dreamlike sequences that are visually beautiful, but leave some character threads untied.

Though not a perfect movie, Birds of Paradise is an entertaining watch thanks to Smith’s direction and the two lead performances. The unforgiving yet gorgeous world of ballet proves an excellent backdrop for a layered relationship between two friends who often shift into rivals and possibly something more. Froseth and Silvers keep both of their complicated characters and the bond that lies between them grounded, mixing well with the sensual tone Smith has created. Those looking for a sexy, intriguing drama might be happy to call up Birds of Paradise for some nighttime viewing.

Birds of Paradise will begin streaming on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, September 24. It is 113 minutes long and rated R for drug use, sexual content, language and brief nudity.