Review: ‘Saving Paradise,’ starring William Moseley and Johanna Braddy

September 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Johanna Braddy and William Moseley in “Saving Paradise” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Saving Paradise”

Directed by Jay Silverman

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Pennsylvania community of Paradise and in New York City, the dramatic film “Saving Paradise” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After his father dies, a corporate raider goes back to his hometown of Paradise, Pennsylvania, to try to save the pencil-making company that has been in his family for generations and is on the verge of going out of business. 

Culture Audience: “Saving Paradise” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in “going back to your hometown roots” movies that are mawkish and predictable in every possible way.

Mary Pat Gleason and Shashawnee Hall (both pictured in front) in “Saving Paradise” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Saving Paradise” has all the makings of a sappy Hallmark Channel movie, except that there’s some cursing in this extremely hokey, unoriginal and formulaic film. Sure, the names of the characters might not be collectively in other movies, but “Saving Paradise” follows the exact same template of any corny movie about someone who goes back to a hometown to confront personal demons and try to be a hero to the townspeople who were left behind. Directed by Jay Silverman and written by Van Billet, “Saving Paradise” has such little flair and no creativity, viewers who’ve seen enough of these types of treacly movies can practically do a countdown to all the moments that you know are going to happen.

There’s the protagonist Michael Peterson (played by William Moseley), who moved to New York City to start a new life and to escape from painful memories of things that happened in his hometown of Paradise, Pennsylvania. There’s the former high school classmate named Charlene “Charlie” Clarke (played by Johanna Braddy), who sort of had a flirtation with Michael when he lived in Paradise, but they haven’t seen or talked to each other since they were in high school. Michael and Charlie are currently both single and in their mid-30s. And that means Charlie is obviously going to be depicted as “the one who got away.”

And then there’s the “big problem” that’s supposed to bring the protagonist and the love interest together. In this case, the problem is that Michael’s father Don Peterson (played by Lawrence Pressman), who was in his 70s, has passed away and left the family-owned company Peterson Pencil on the brink of going out of business. And his widow Barbara Peterson (played by Mimi Kennedy) could lose her house, since it was used as collateral in a loan that the company has to pay back in a short period of time.

Michael is a rising star at Wannamaker Capital Group, a corporate raider firm in New York City, and he hasn’t gone back to visit Paradise in several years. He goes back to Paradise for Don’s funeral and reluctantly agrees to try to save this pencil-making company, which is headquartered in Paradise and employs about 60 people. And guess who’s the chief financial officer (CFO) of Peterson Pencil? Charlie, of course.

The beginning of the movie shows Don still alive and being an outgoing and friendly boss to his employees. He’s the type of president/CEO who knows everyone by name, as he walks through the Peterson Pencil factory and in the offices. Don is popular with his employees, but he’s hiding a big secret from almost all of them: Don has made too many bad business decisions, and the company is only a few months away from a possible permanent closure. Don has been generous to a fault, by draining the company’s funds to pay for employee perks that the company can’t afford, such as offering full college tuition for the employees’ children.

Peterson Pencil, which has just one factory, is far from being a corporation that can afford these company benefits. Most major companies don’t offer college tuition money for employees’ children, so it makes no sense for a small, struggling pencil company to do that. Peterson Pencil is now $10 million in debt, and the bank wants the money back in 90 days. And what do you know, the deadline is close to Christmas, which is one of the worst times to lay off employees.

What kind of incompetent CFO would let this mess happen? “Saving Paradise” excuses Charlie from blame. It’s explained in the movie that before Don died, Charlie warned him that his spending decisions would put the company out of business. Charlie even came up with a plan to restructure and refinance the company to get Peterson Pencil out of debt. However, Don refused to agree to the plan because it would mean some of the employees would have to be laid off.

It all just makes Don look like a stubborn fool, because the alternative would be that all—not some—employees would lose their jobs if the company goes out of business. All the stress apparently got to Don because he had a heart attack and died. His widow Barbara had always hoped that Michael would take over the family business when the time was right. It looks like Barbara is going to get her wish, even though it’s not under ideal circumstances. Michael is put in the uncomfortable position of having to tell her that she could lose the house, because Don kept that information a secret from his wife.

“Saving Paradise” leans heavily into the cliché that anyone who has deliberately spent several years away from their family must be running away from a big, dark secret. Sure enough, Michael does have a big, dark secret: He’s haunted by the death of his beloved older brother Daniel Joseph “DJ” Peterson (played by Brandon Ruiter in flashback scenes), who died when DJ was 18 and Michael was 16. The circumstances of DJ’s death are eventually revealed in the movie through various flashbacks, which feature Aidan Merwarth as teenage Michael, and Elodie Grace Orkin as teenage Charlie.

Because a stereotypical movie like “Saving Paradise” has to drag out the “will they or won’t they get together” romance aspect of the film, Michael and Charlie predictably clash with each other on how to get Peterson Pencil out of its financial crisis. Michael also finds out that many of the longtime employees, who knew him when he was a child, feel a certain amount of resentment toward Michael for not coming back to visit Paradise after he became a hotshot corporate raider in New York City.

Michael ends up taking a leave of absence from his corporate job in order to save his family business. His ruthless boss Cameron Wannamaker (played by James Eckhouse), who’s the managing director of Wannamaker Capital Group, is very unhappy with this decision because Michael is being considered for a promotion, and he’s Cameron’s first choice. The other main contender for the promotion is Edward Worthington (played by Shaughn Buchholz), an eager-to-please and nervous employee whom Cameron does not respect.

As soon as Michael shows up and tells the Peterson Pencil employees that he’s the interim president/CEO of the company, many of them immediately think that he’s just there to do what corporate raiders do: Buy a struggling company at a low price, fire most of the workers to replace them with cheaper labor (usually in other countries), and then turn the company around to sell it at a big profit. It would be an understatement to say that many of the employees don’t trust Michael.

The Peterson Pencil employees who get the most screen time as supporting characters are:

  • Mary Williams (played by Mary Pat Gleason), the factory’s no-nonsense manager who’s one the company’s longest-serving employees.
  • George O’Malley (played by Shashawnee Hall), one of Mary’s trusted subordinates who works in maintenance and shipping.
  • Leona Hines (played by Pam Trotter), an office manager whose adult son was promised a job at Peterson Pencil when he gets out of the military.
  • Walter Wilson (played by George Steeves), a mailroom employee who loves to recite trivia knowledge about pencils, and he seems to be somewhere on the autism spectrum.
  • Julie Barnes (played by Valeria Maldonado), an administrative assistant who was briefly Michael’s girlfriend in junior high school.

Julie is now a single mother who’s been divorced three times, and she’s very interested in getting back together with Michael. Of course she is, because a movie that piles on over-used tropes as much as “Saving Paradise” does has to include a love triangle. It’s the most over-used trope in movies with a “will they or won’t they get together” romance storyline.

“Saving Paradise” should get a little credit for not making Charlie someone who was waiting around for Michael to come back to Paradise. After high school, Charlie and Michael went to different universities and lost touch with each other. In a scene where Charlie and Michael are having lunch together, she tells him that she too moved to a big city (London) for a corporate finance job (at a bank).

Charlie had a live-in boyfriend in London, and they got engaged, but the relationship didn’t work out. Around the time of this breakup, Charlie decided that a corporate job wasn’t for her, so she moved back to Paradise, where Michael’s father Don offered her the CFO position at Peterson Pencil. Not much is revealed about Michael’s love life since he left Paradise, but it’s implied that he’s been too much of a workaholic to settle down with anyone.

“Saving Paradise” has an awkward mix of cast members who are obviously a lot more talented and experienced than others. There’s nothing wrong with having cast members with various levels of acting experience. But when these disparate acting skills show on screen and become embarrassing distractions, that’s a problem.

The movie also has a somewhat offensive depiction of dementia. Peterson Pencil employee Walter hangs out a lot with his grandfather (played by Paul Dooley), nicknamed Gramps, who has early stages of dementia. Instead of “Saving Paradise” making Gramps look like a well-rounded human being, the main purpose that Gramps serves in this movie is to have a confused Gramps think that Michael is Michael’s dead brother DJ. It happens multiple times in the story. Gramps has to be gently reminded that DJ is dead, but it predictably upsets Michael that Gramps keeps thinking that Michael is his deceased brother.

“Saving Paradise” was partially inspired by Musgrave Pencil Company in Shelbyville, Tennessee. It’s one of the few remaining pencil factories in the United States, and it gets a “thank you” mention in the end credits of “Saving Paradise.” The movie might have been inspired by this real-life factory, but the story in “Saving Paradise” is very “only in a movie” contrived nonsense.

As overly sentimental as this movie is with the concept that Michael is going to swoop in and be the hero, Braddy depicts just enough feistiness and initiative to not make her Charlie character into a typical damsel in distress. However, it’s still not enough to avoid the avalanche of hack filmmaking in almost every single aspect of “Saving Paradise,” including the very irritating score music. Braddy’s acting is the most naturalistic among the several “Saving Paradise” actors who are too hammy in their delivery.

Moseley has a few moments of showing some emotional range outside of Michael’s constant pouting and brooding, but his Michael character is written as a fairly generic leading man. Moseley, who is real British in real life, sometimes lets his British accent come through in this movie. They’re subtle slip-ups, but still noticeable.

“Saving Paradise” gives absolutely no suspense to viewers in what will happen in this story. And because the loan payback deadline happens during the Christmas holiday season, that means more mushiness is poured all over the “race against time” climax of the film. There are predictable movies of this type that can be enjoyable to watch if the acting and characters are highly appealing. But “Saving Paradise” just takes the lazy way out by rehashing and watering down what’s been done in other movies that have already done the same things in a much better way.

Vertical Entertainment released “Saving Paradise” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 3, 2021.