To John Pierson, it seemed like a great idea -- romantic, impulsive, dreamy: Take a year off and operate "the world's most remote cinema" in Fiji.
So in 2002, the indie-movie impresario took over the 180 Meridian Cinema -- named for the international date line, which crosses the island -- taking along his wife, Janet, and two teenage kids. He also invited Steve James, co-director of "Hoop Dreams," to film the Piersons in the final month of their sojourn.
"Reel Paradise" is the highly watchable result, a documentary that uses Pierson's self-congratulatory mission to explore a deeper story about cultural clashes and the complex dynamics of the modern American family.
One of the movie's first surprises is that Pierson -- a producer and broker for some of the most important independent films of the '80s and '90s, including "She's Gotta Have It," "Slacker," "Clerks" and "Roger & Me" -- is showing Queen Latifah comedies and the likes of "Jackass" to the islanders.
"You can look around and pretty much know you can't show 'Girl With a Pearl Earring,' " Pierson explains. His instincts seem to prove correct. His patrons, ranging from young children to old men, regularly fill the 288-seat movie house for the mainstream fare. Their spontaneous laughter is one of Pierson's few successes, however. For the most part, the angular, bespectacled New Yorker is sorely tested by the vagaries of life in Fiji and their impact on his household.
Projectionists come either late, drunk or not at all. Audiences get unruly at times. Expensive laptops are stolen from his home. Pierson is declared a bad influence on the island by Christian missionaries. And while he becomes increasingly frustrated with crowd control ("Don't run!"), his children, well, go native on him.
Pierson's 16-year-old daughter, Georgia, and 13-year-old son, Wyatt, become far more immersed in the culture than either of their parents. It doesn't help matters that Georgia is in full teenage rebellion mode. She hangs out late at night with her friends, flirts with boys and clearly enjoys drinking. When she's challenged by Pierson and his wife, she yells back with victimized vehemence. Wyatt, to Pierson's relief, is much easier to deal with, aside from complaints when his father programs the occasional artier movie, such as Buster Keaton's 1928 "Steamboat Bill, Jr."
Pierson deals with some setbacks -- such as the projectionist problem -- with sanguine acceptance but becomes increasingly frustrated during the course of the film. There are yelling battles with his wife and daughter. He's hostile and sarcastic to his landlord and the police about retrieving the lost equipment. And as the year draws to a close, it's clear he and his wife (who's having her share of frustrations, too) are ready to return to New York.
Not so for the children. Georgia bonds with classmate Miriami, who clearly reveres her new American friend. Their parting is a sweet, hand-holding, tearful event. Wyatt is engaging and friendly with almost everyone at his school. It seems to have been a great year for both of them.
Ultimately, Pierson's undertaking has become an excruciating learning experience: You can be the co-founder of a pop-cultural revolution but in a place where your reputation means squat, your real value is measured by how you deal with people. Whether he gets this isn't clear, but there is a glimmer of hope when he speaks admiringly of his daughter and son's successful stay in Fiji. Wyatt, he declares, "puts me to shame."
Reel Paradise (110 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for sexual references, profanity and crude excerpts from the movie "Jackass."