In the 1950′ s, there were 23 pencil factories in the US. Today, only three remain. One is in Shelbyville, Tennesse, and is the main set of Saving Paradise, the last movie by Jay Silverman (Girl on the Edge).
Inspired by true events, Saving Paradise tells the story of a small town, nearly a ghost one, and talks about the power of being a community, teaches us to not run away from our fears and guilt-ridden, refocusing us on what truly matters in life.
It happens to Michael (William Moseley) when his dad Don (Lawrence Pressman), the president of the pencil company, passes away from an unexpected heart attack. Forced to return home after ten years away, Michael must decide whether it is in his best interest to sell off the company or fight for its survival with the help of Charlie (Johanna Braddy), CFO of the company.
But there is so much more in this story because this journey home is a journey of salvation for healing a deep secret wound. “The man who saved this town,” says Charlie at the end, “This town saved me” replies Michael.
If Saving Paradise, at first, seems a dated movie seen a thousand times (Love by Design; Love, Romance and Chocolate, …) it is not.
True, the story is old-fashioned, and the ending is easily predictable (woe if not); but Saving Paradise strength is not about the story or the ending but it’s about how the story is told and about the people who tell it on screen.
“We may not be big-city business tycoons like you, but try us,” says Mary (an extraordinary and so missed Mary Pat Gleason, here in her last work).
And it’s how these small-town people are introduced to us that gives to Saving Paradise its first nice touch.
While Don enters the plant, we are introduced to each one of them and we discover something personal: Mary has a grandson who left Paradise and forgot about her, Leona has a son in the army engaged in a mission in a secret location, Walter is probably suffering from Asperger’s but his obsession with data/facts will be crucial, his grandpa has Alzheimer but he will be the first to touch Michael’s conscience (“Your company is a lot more than just a pencil factory. Your grandfather gave me back my dignity”).
The same touch is used to introduce us to Paradise itself: a little drive from the cinema and the town hall to the pencil factory; through the unemployment office, the closed and abandoned shops with their dusty-empty windows, and the houses on sale.
But the cherry on the top of the cake or, to stay on the topic, let’s say the eraser on the top of the pencil, is the outstanding cast.
Side note: my teenager’s inner heart was harpooned, like a dull pencil into an electric sharpener in seeing on screen James Eckhouse, aka Brendon and Brenda Walsh’s father from Beverly Hills 90210. End of the side note.
Mary Pat Gleason is extraordinary in her last performance.
Shashawnee Hall, despite, or maybe because of it, his imposing figure gives a touch of lightness to the movie.
To make the difference, however, is the trio formed by George Steeves as Walter Wilson, Johanna Braddy as Charlie Clark, and William Moseley (Land of Dreams, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Royals) as Michael Peterson.
Again, the script by Van Billet allows us to know them without a direct presentation and without falling into useless clichés.
Having had students suffering from Asperger’s, I was pleasantly impressed by the delicacy with which the character of Walter is treated, and above all, I appreciated the importance given to him by Michael for the entire movie. I can’t wait to watch George Steeves‘ next project My Life with Asperger’s.
Charlie Clark needs a single sentence to explain how it’s possible to leave a great job in a wonderful city like London (and I really feel her) for working in a small-town pencil factory. “There I never felt like making much of a difference, but here in Paradise I make the difference every day until you showed up”.
Last but not least, Michael Peterson. Let’s be clear, he is not the a**h**e we are used to seeing in this kind of movie, also because William Moseley (don’t miss next week our interview with him in Venice), would never be believable… despite his extraordinary acting skills. Of course, sometimes we’d want to slap him and if Charlie did, we couldn’t blame her. But he is not a shark, and he shows it from the first minutes when he wants to step back from the acquisition because he discovers that the owner has cancer while for his boss, it’s the perfect time to bounce. But it’s Charlie who gives us an in-depth portrait of the person in front of us, the only one who can get through to him. And she does it with an analysis of Michael’s handwriting: methodical (use of lists), focused (small letters), intense (heavy pencil pressure), detached with unsolved pain (loops in the Is and Ts).
Saving Paradise is a moving production that will touch your heart and make you think about what becoming a better person who cares for others really means at a time when we should have learned to be better people and learned the sense of community but instead, we’re coming out of it more reckless, arrogant and selfish.