Courtesy The New Yorker
“Last Days at Paradise High” is a striking look at grief, trauma and triumph that serves as a pre-COVID-19 snapshot of coping with catastrophe.
The documentary short directed by Emily Thomas and Derek Knowles profiles high school seniors just months after the Camp Fire destroyed most of their small California town, Paradise.
In an airport building full of makeshift classrooms 20 miles from their burnt-down town, Paradise High School’s Class of 2019 deals with the everyday drama of senior year — tattoos, prom and college applications — while also wrestling with the trauma of losing their hometown.
“I haven’t felt at home in so long,” student Harmony Von Stockhausen says in a voiceover.
Harmony and her friends make it known they feel left behind. They act cool and comfortable around peers and elders, but are allowed by the short’s producers to express their grief and anxieties more freely in monochrome interstitials where they’re either alone or flanked by a friend.
While the short centers Paradise, the Camp Fire itself is only shown in a short sequence that juxtaposes teacher Virginia Partain’s drive home with flashes of footage taken from inside the wildfire.
In the previous scene, while discussing the fire, Partain’s colleague says, “Whatever happens, I’ll be okay. And I have been.” Another brings up poet Henry David Thoreau’s reason for leaving Walden Pond: “I had more lives to live.”
The presentation of “Last Days at Paradise High” isn’t flashy; it doesn’t need to be. The characters and their stories are explosive enough.
The beautiful but low-key score complements the short in a way that’s fitting and not emotionally manipulative.
At the temporary campus and students’ houses, the cinematography is bright and vibrant, but it’s at its most effective inside the city limits of the harsh, dreary remains of Paradise.
The short’s fairground climax, however, is its visual high point; it stands in stark contrast to the similarly jury-rigged circus of Paradise High School, an institution that trades Ferris wheels for anxiety workbooks.
Just like the devastated remnants of Paradise, trauma never fully goes away. Whether you find comfort in digging through debris or putting the town in your rearview mirror, it’s as Marcel Proust wrote, “The true paradises are the paradises one has lost.”
“Last Days at Paradise High” is available for free on YouTube courtesy of The New Yorker.
Editor’s note: This piece was originally written for the on-the-spot critical review contest at Connect2021 Spring National College Media Convention, where it won first place.