Documentary filmmaker Steve James has helmed three features that don't appear to have much in common, aside from the fact that all three are more about their subjects' day-to-day lives than about their surface stories. James' Hoop Dreams, Stevie, and Reel Paradise also share a sneaky sub-theme. In each, well-meaning people grapple with what they owe to the people they help. The theme plays strongest in Stevie, where James films his own attempts to renew a relationship with one of his old charity cases, but it sneaks into Reel Paradise as well, and eventually takes over a movie that initially seems to be more of a lark.
Reel Paradise catches indie film entrepreneur John Pierson toward the tail end of his yearlong residence on a Fijian island, where he bought a theater and ran a nightly program of free movies—mostly recent Hollywood fare with a few classics and indies mixed in. James and crew showed up for the final month, when Pierson and his family were both settled into and getting annoyed by the island lifestyle. Screenings were running late because the local projectionists couldn't be counted on, and at least once a week, the Piersons got wind of a new nasty rumor being spread about them. And though Pierson's 13-year-old son Wyatt and 16-year-old daughter Georgia seem popular with their schoolmates, some of those friends begin taking advantage of the Americans' relative wealth and privilege.
The Piersons are warm, funny people, and most of Reel Paradise shows them comically bickering with each other and laughing at the absurdity of the whole project. Not everybody outside their estate is so amused. Nearby missionaries question whether Pierson's something-for-nothing offer is lowering the islanders' moral character, and they also question some of the movies he shows. Pierson doesn't check IDs, so Fijian children are welcome to gobble up all the violent, vulgar blockbusters that he throws at them. In Reel Paradise's toughest moment, Pierson makes plans to show Jackass, over the objections of his wife, Janet, who's taking the missionaries' warnings to heart. She frets over the promises her kids are making, and what people will think of them once they're gone. And while her husband is largely indifferent to the question, James stays attuned, noticing how even philanthropic gestures can upset the ecosystem.