It’s never been an even playing field. It’s always been about sex, blood, and money. It’s all that matters.

All that matters to Kate Sanders (Diana Silvers) is being the best. Hailing from Virginia, Kate has won a spot at a prestigious Parisian ballet academy. If she succeeds and earns the academy’s top prize, she will win a contract with the Opéra national de Paris. But competition is cutthroat, and Kate has two things working against her: She’s American and doesn’t speak a lick of French, and she’s here on a scholarship. And the scholarship only covers tuition. The rest, she’ll have to pony-up for herself: Slippers, cover charge to the Jungle, and drugs.

For the first 20 minutes or so of Birds of Paradise, the latest from writer/director Sarah Adina Smith, you might think you’re in Suspiria territory. It’s sleek and sexy and a little trippy. A mystery crops up as Kate circles the outer ring of this elite academy run by the frosty Madame Brunelle (Jacqueline Bisset). Brunelle refers to the students as “rats,” testing them to find the limits of their pursuit. Then there are the students: Friends and lovers by constraint, competitors by design. Brunelle regularly posts the rankings of each dancer, creating just the right amount of tension between the students and the narrative.

But Suspiria this is not. Though there is a death haunting the academy, Brunelle is not the head of a coven of witches, and Kate’s only real enemy is the person she is capable of becoming. Things are not as tragic or as fantastical as the ballet classic, The Red Shoes—though there is a hint of The Archers’ other Technicolor masterpiece, Black Narcissus, as Kate grows closer to the enigmatic Marine (Kristine Froseth).

Instead, the success of Birds is how Smith manages to keep the narrative on unstable ground. From the fluid camera movements at the academy, suggesting something or someone is watching just around the corner, to the blacklight glow of The Jungle—a dance club existing somewhere between fairy tale, dream, and drug trip. Smith and cinematographer Shaheen Seth never tip their hand about what kind of movie you’re watching or what direction it might be going.

Adapted from the novel Bright Burning Stars by A.K. Smalls, Birds of Paradise revolves around a fable from Kate (how the sky got its stars), a mantra from Marine (“Blessed is she who falls. And blessed is she who rises again.”), and a pre-narrative plunge that sets the events in motion. All three ensnare the characters, but not until the movie’s climax. That’s when the true game of this academy, this career, this pursuit is revealed.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Birds of Paradise (2021)
Written for the screen and directed by Sarah Adina Smith
Adapted from the novel Bright Burning Stars by A.K. Smalls
Produced by Trevor Adley, Jonako Donley, Dara Gordon, Sarah Adina Smith
Starring: Diana Silvers, Kristine Froseth, Eva Lomby, Gaétan Vermeulen, Jacqueline Bisset
Amazon Studios, Rated R, Running time 113 minutes, Streaming on Amazon Prime starting Sept. 24, 2021.