There's a scene in Steve James' entertaining documentary "Reel Paradise" in which John Pierson, a pioneering independent film producer's rep, aptly compares himself to Allie Fox, Harrison Ford's bespectacled, slightly mad visionary in the Paul Schrader-Peter Weir adaptation of Paul Theroux's novel "Mosquito Coast." Both men uproot their families from the relative luxury of middle-class America to pursue a dream of tropical nirvana — Honduras for the Foxes, Fiji for the Piersons.
No one goes insane in Pierson's paradise, but his family is as dutiful (if a little dubious) and his relationship to the missionaries nearly as contentious as Allie's. Pierson's wife, Janet, and teenage children, Georgia and Wyatt, follow as he embarks for the Fijian island of Taveuni, where he decides to operate the 180 Meridian Cinema, a theater he discovered while doing an episode of his Independent Film Channel series "Split Screen." His goal is to observe the power of cinema in an alternative environment and expose his kids to a vastly different culture.
The film opens with a breakneck synopsis of Pierson's career before arriving at the cinematic frontier of Fiji. The aging 180 Meridian, which opened in 1954, features mismatched seats and shuttered windows that open to let in the cool night air, not to mention a ton of dust, which Pierson seems to be perpetually sweeping out. The local populace, made up of native Fiji islanders and Indo-Fijians whose ancestors came as indentured servants in the 1880s, flock to the free screenings of such eclectic fare as "Jackass," "Apocalypse Now Redux," "Bend It Like Beckham" and the Hindi film "Kaante." Pierson revels in his role as cinematic proselytizer, beckoning to the Taveunians to enjoy his offerings. The uproarious laughter that floats from the cinema wonderfully illustrates the universality of the moviegoing experience.
Not everyone on the island is pleased, however. The priests at the Roman Catholic high school where Georgia and Wyatt are enrolled take Pierson's devotion to the movies a tad literally, especially after a piece he wrote for The Times makes its way back to Taveuni. The storm that brews over that issue is one of the many instances that underline the cultural differences on display in the film. Particularly striking is the wistful comment of Georgia's local friend Miriama, that the Americans' domestic rows remain verbal while disputes in her home frequently turn physical.
That's not to say the Pierson family's conflicts are uneventful. Wyatt is a keen observer of his father's operation and at 13 has a firmness of opinion that is enviable. When he challenges his father's programming choices, flatly declaring independent films to be "boring" and coolly predicting that no one will turn up for some of the more artsy titles, John beams with parental pride. Georgia, at the rebellious age of 16, has a more contentious relationship with Janet. An especially argumentative scene in which each accuses the other of "acting for the camera" puts most reality television to shame.
Arriving for the last month of the Pierson family's sojourn, James artfully captures the flavor of their yearlong stay. He's especially perceptive of Georgia and Wyatt's ability to adapt to what for many U.S. children would be a state of deprivation. They form close friendships with Fijian children, and rather than feel repressed by the provincialism of the village after growing up in suburban New York, they appear to embrace the experience with surprising passion.
MPAA rating: R for language, including sexual references, and brief crude humor.
Times guidelines: The rating seems unduly harsh.
A Wellspring release. Director Steve James. Producers Steve James, Scott Mosier. Executive producers Kevin Smith, Janet Pierson, John Pierson. Director of photography P.H. O'Brien. Editor Steve James. Music Norman Arnold. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
At the Landmark Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 281-8223.