By John DeFore
AUSTIN -- Storied producer's rep John Pierson (who told his stories in his book "Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes") is a charismatic draw for a certain kind of moviegoer -- the indie-centric fan who marvels at the many filmmaking talents he has brought to light. Fortunately for the docu in which he stars, "Reel Paradise" has a broader appeal. As a portrait of a quirky American family and a study of competing cultural values, it's an engrossing and often very funny tale. It recently screened at the South by Southwest Film Festival.
The Pierson clan -- John, wife-partner Janet, 16-year-old Georgia and 13-year-old Wyatt -- spent a year on the Fijian island of Taveuni, where they ran what they call "the world's most remote movie theater," a dirty, barely functional place called the 180 Meridian Cinema. In the final month of their stay, director Steve James came to document their experience.
While the film lacks a story line as gripping as "Hoop Dreams" or an issue as powerful as "The Thin Blue Line" (previous projects for James and Pierson, respectively) and thus can't be expected to set the boxoffice aflame, it has a mixture of humor and cultural relevance that raises it above the documentary rank and file. That appeal could be enhanced by trimming a few enjoyable but unnecessary scenes from the film. In general, "Reel Paradise" is just what it needs to be: A vicarious vacation in an exotic setting, away from all the trappings of "civilized" life except the one moviegoers crave.
The 180 Meridian had been free all year (opening its doors to an audience that would not have been able to afford admission otherwise) which provoked an unexpected conflict: The nearby Catholic church was offended, claiming that giving things away undermined the work ethic that generations of Western missionaries had tried so hard to impose on Fiji.
Other conflicts arose as well, both at the theater (where John deals with projectionists who go on a bender instead of showing up for work) and at home (where Georgia's popularity with local boys scandalizes her classmates' parents, and the Piersons' relative wealth attracts burglars). Almost all the difficulties boil down to an intriguing clash of values but are made more interesting because of the varied personalities within the family -- from Wyatt, who eagerly adapts to local customs and is skeptical of his father's highbrow tastes, to Janet, who brings a liberal intellect to bear on everything from curfews to a showing of "Jackass."
Planted among the many cultural dramas, of course, is a motivating love of the movies. A few scenes capture a magic right out of "Sullivan's Travels": moviegoers who aren't yet too jaded to howl at the antics of Buster Keaton, Steve Martin or a "Jackass" willing to attach electrodes to his nether regions. James manages to slide these moments in without letting the docu feel like a solipsistic ode to cinephilia.