• Nate Adams

Review: Gripping doc 'Rebuilding Paradise' shares message of hope


Courtesy of National Geographic

Rising from the ashes of the most horrific wildfire of the 21st century, Ron Howard’s devastating and heart wrenching documentary “Rebuilding Paradise” highlights a community struggling to pull itself together after the Camp Fire of 2018.


Once a town with over 26,000 citizens, Paradise - in Butte County - housed the most lethal and costly wildfire in California's history. This deeply personal doc follows a carefully selected group of Paradise residents through a year of rebounds and recovery after the fire, bringing into focus not only the devastation a catastrophe on this magnitude brings, but the logistical and financial burdens of restructuring an entire town wiped out by a natural disaster.


Howard’s empathetic film paints an optimistic picture, through the tears flow often and It’s easy to get caught up in the emotions of it all, “Rebuilding Paradise” shows the resilience of this community and their determination to get back on their feet. Some critics might suggest the film teeters too heavy on sentimentality, failing to dive deeper into the PG&E lawsuit that was filed on behalf of the residents who lost loved ones and their homes. Nor does it present any logistical qualms with rebuilding a home in the middle of the wreckage, especially as asbestos and toxic chemicals in the air practically make Paradise a warzone.


Instead, “Rebuilding Paradise” wants to, rightfully, put the citizens at the forefront. The film assembles a nice montage of hard working folk ranging from a school janitor to the town mayor to help tell the story. Howard also interweaves body cam footage of police officers on the scene November 8th 2018, the morning of the fire, which produces one of the most jaw dropping and harrowing opening sequences in recent memory.


But out of all the characters the film chooses to highlight, the most engaging belongs to school superintendent Michelle John, who works tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure the fire-riddled Paradise High School football field is ready for 2019 graduation. You can tell that Michelle is a force of nature who, along with her husband Phil, offers support for the students and does everything she can muster to lay a solid educational foundation for the displaced children of Paradise, including renting out space in a nearby mall.


Howard also isn’t afraid to showcase the grueling town hall meetings where PG&E executives had to face the music from the citizens of Paradise - Erin Brockovich herself arrives on the scene to help the people sue for liability - and it paints a grim picture on the path to rebuilding. It’s possible, but it’s just going to take time.


There will be more docs on the subject in the future, especially as Paradise continues to find its footing and bring back their community. In the meantime, “Rebuilding Paradise” is an excellent film from a master filmmaker who dutifully shines a light on climate control and how these disasters can be prevented. You grief and feel for these folks as you watch them relay their story to the camera, capturing raw and tender moments often reserved for quiet and intimate scenes. Watching someone discover their childhood home is burned to the ground is tough to stomach, but Howard isn’t afraid to tow the line. At the end of the film, you walk out with a sense of hope, because after only spending a brief amount of time with these citizens, it’s obvious they aren’t quitters, and if they can come out of this on the other side, anything is possible.


Grade: A-


REBUILDING PARADISE will release in theaters and on digital platforms starting Friday July 31st. Check your listings.