‘Birds of Paradise’ Review: Dirty Dancing

The melodrama is permanently en pointe in “Birds of Paradise,” a ballet-centered battle between rich and poor, experience and innocence.

The dueling pair are students at an elite Parisian ballet academy. Kate (Diana Silvers), an American scholarship recipient and a latecomer to dance, may not be the ingénue she seems. Marine (Kristine Froseth), the daughter of the U.S. ambassador and a talented dancer, is struggling to surmount a family trauma. Only one male and one female dancer can win the school’s competition for places at a prestigious ballet company — a quest that consumes the student body and turns the two women into ardent frenemies.

Adapting A.K. Small’s 2019 young-adult novel, “Bright Burning Stars,” the writer and director Sarah Adina Smith stirs up a viper’s nest of bitchiness and body shaming.

“You look like a sack of potatoes,” the students’ forbidding teacher (Jacqueline Bisset) snipes to one unfortunate, cruelly pointing out a recent weight gain. Structured around a countdown to the ultimate prize, the story is a soapy slog of sabotage and betrayal. Sex and drugs are as prevalent as pliés, the absence of a likable character as irksome as the constant conniving.

At moments, in Kate’s anxious phone calls home to her widowed father, or in her attempts to make do with worn-out toe shoes, we glimpse a more thoughtful movie, one that cares as much about class barriers as it does about competing. Then Shaheen Seth’s camera roams once more over bodies in motion, giving their gracefulness a chilling edge that tells us however beautiful the dance, it’s inseparable from the ugliness beneath.

Birds of Paradise
Rated R for taking drugs, making out and throwing up. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes. Watch on Amazon.

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