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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Rebuilding Paradise is a National Geographic documentary directed by Ron Howard about how the people of Paradise, California, recovered after the worst wildfire in California history ravaged their community. "Community" is the right word here: People returned, rebuilt, and forged through their trauma by being there for one another, and the film stands as an example of their resilience. Plenty of positive character strengths and themes are on display, including the courage and selflessness of the first responders, the gratitude people express, and the perseverance needed to get through the ordeal. The first nine minutes of the movie are incredibly intense: Howard puts viewers inside the fire, watching through police body cam and cellphone video footage. The segment ends with a family escaping and a child in the car sobbing. You'll probably cry, too, a few times, from the compassion you feel for the loss or at the injustice suffered by the people of Paradise. The film could easily drift into soapboxing, but it avoids too much finger-pointing. That said, utility company PG&E's role in the tragedy is a part of the conversation, and the film does encourage us to ask how we can be more prepared for disaster. Expect to hear some strong language (including "f--k" and "s--t").
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What's the story?
On November 8, 2018, a wildfire broke out that quickly destroyed the idyllic small town of Paradise, California. Burning more than 150,000 acres, it was the deadliest fire in California history, taking 85 lives and 18,000 structures and displacing 50,000 residents. Director Ron Howard takes a close look at how the community came together during and after the disaster in REBUILDING PARADISE.
Is it any good?
Howard's gripping documentary takes a different approach to covering a natural disaster: It focuses on the human spirit, not politics. For someone who grew up working primarily in fiction and features, Howard proves he's just as adept at creating a balanced, journalistic look at how a town recovers after a catastrophe. So many elements could be hard charged -- like climate change, blaming the government, or portraying PG&E (the California utility company found responsible for the blaze due to negligence) as corrupt and evil. These issues are mentioned, as they're part of the story, but they're not exploited. Rather, Howard keeps the attention on the people of Paradise: what they went through, how they survived, and how, for some, the hits just kept on coming long after the flames were extinguished.
Howard pulls viewers in immediately by putting them squarely in the residents' shoes. Beginning with the morning of November 8, 2018, you first hear the fire advisory warnings, then the first reports of a fire breaking out. The blaze spreads, growing closer, until -- watching through cellphone footage -- you're surrounded by the flames licking the side of your window. When escape finally comes, you can finally exhale as you hear a child in the back seat sobbing with relief. After those harrowing nine minutes, the film checks back in every few months as the school board administrator, a counselor, and a police officer try to get kids and the community back to some kind of normalcy without facilities. At the same time, residents share their struggles -- and it takes a while for things to get better. Remarkably, the small town comes together. Love replaces dissent. When obstacles arise, Howard gives viewers a glimpse at the other side. The city council angers residents by displacing them a second time, but we're able to see why the leaders had to make an unfair and difficult decision. When a PG&E spokesperson addresses the concerns of the town, the citizens rage -- but we're able to see the representative's nervousness and understand that he feels like he's been thrown to the wolves, overwhelmed and doing his best to provide assurance. Howard also reveals the earth science behind why the flames spread so fast, tracing back to a well-meaning state policy. Nobody -- not even "fire" -- is a villain here. Rather, the film is about understanding how a crisis occurs, the toll it takes on the survivors, how to recover, and how to prevent it from happening again.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what you think the filmmakers' purpose was in making Rebuilding Paradise. What lessons do they want viewers to take away?
Director Ron Howard states that his curiosity is what leads him to make each film he directs. How does Rebuilding Paradise reflect that? Why is exploring curiosity important?
In what ways does the fire continue to injure people, months after the flames are extinguished?
Talk about your family's own emergency plan. What preventative measures can you take to be sure you're prepared if disaster strikes?
- In theaters: July 31, 2020
- On DVD or streaming: November 10, 2020
- Cast: Michelle John, Matt Gates
- Director: Ron Howard
- Studio: National Geographic
- Genre: Documentary
- Topics: Science and Nature
- Character strengths: Courage, Gratitude, Perseverance, Teamwork
- Run time: 95 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: intense scenes of peril, thematic elements and some strong language
- Last updated: March 3, 2021
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