It is a very common and perfectly natural aspect of life that we filter everything we see through our previous experiences. This can make it a bit difficult when we encounter something for which we have little or no basis of comparison. This was my first thoughts as I watched the film ‘Purgatory House’. Not only is it from the viewpoint of a fourteen year old girl but it was written by a fourteen year old girl. I didn’t understand girls of this age when I was a teenage boy; I didn’t understand them when my daughter was that age so I didn’t know what to expect here. Needless to say I was extremely impressed by what I witnessed. We are in a time now where teens lash out occasionally with violence towards adults, their peers and themselves. The writer and star of this film, Celeste Davis, chose another way to deal with her angst, she wrote a screenplay about it. While this film is difficult, almost painful for an adult to watch we should remember that once we where teenagers and the world seem so intense and so very small. This young girl put together an imaginative view of an incredibly complicated subject, teen suicide. Rather than give us just another after school special Davis provides a glimpse into the inner most private thoughts of a young girl on the brink.
Most films end with the death of the protagonist but for this one it is only the start. Silver Strand (Celeste Davis) has just committed suicide by overdosing on a combination of pills and acid. She finds herself in Purgatory House, a place between heaven and hell where is must exist with other teens who have taken their own lives. There is also a bizarre game show hosted by Saint James (Jim Hanks) who is actually a vision of God as a transvestite. Win the game and you go to heaven, lose and its hell for all eternity. Silver finds that Purgatory House is sort of a consolation prize. Silver killed herself because she couldn’t take being the goth outsider. At an age when peer acceptance is at its peek Silver was shun because of how she dressed and acted. She took her life because she saw no way to change. As she describes herself in one scene if she was someone else ‘I wouldn’t like me either’. The irony is in Purgatory House she is condemned to remain that way forever. In the drab house she is surrounded by other ‘losers’. There is an unending supply of drugs of all sorts but they are no better at numbing the pain and confusion as they were back on earth. Silver is also forced to watch EarthTV, a voyeuristic television show which displays how life goes on back on Earth without her. Another aspect of the unending sameness is she also has to wear the same clothes and makeup as she had on when she died. For adults who wear suits and ties to work every day this may not seem so bad but consider this point from the view of a teenaged girl who was bombarded by fashion trends almost every waking moment. Silver took her own life to escape but now finds that this is what she must endure forever. Silver begins to realize a few things as she watches her family in the aftermath of her death. While alive she felt isolated and resentful of her father (Howard Lockie). Now she sees that he was devastated by his daughter’s suicide. The concept of purgatory was not in the Bible, it was invented by the Catholic Church. In this film God thought it sounded like a good idea so He decided to give it a try and suicidal teens seemed like a perfect venue.
I have always been a big fan of experimental film. After watching literally thousands of films it is refreshing to see someone take a chance on being different. While watching this film you have to remember that it is not only the freshman efforts of Davis and director Cindy Baer but that this work was an experiment. They had an idea, put it together and made the film. The film works because of the reasons many object to it. It is not polished. Most screenplays are worked over and refined word by word. Here the dialogue flows at times almost incomprehensible. If you can remember back to your own teen years this was how you thought, in random streams of words, images and ideas. A more refined script or production would have ruined this film completely. This is a view of a lonely, depressed and self destructive teenaged girl. Trying to make it a refined film would remove it from what it tries to tell the audience. As a parent of a girl this film frightened me. While my daughter is now beyond the tumultuous teen years I worry about the fathers out there whose children are facing what Silver could not endure. For teens watching this film hopefully they can take away the concept that life is precious and while you are alive there is always a chance to change.
All things considered this film also demonstrates the potential of Davis and Baer with its technical presentation. The story is told in three distinct timelines; the events leding up to her suicide, immediately after her death and a couple of months after being sentenced to Purgatory House. Each timeline has its own unique visual style. Life on earth is shown in true color. Flashbacks are in black and white. Finally, Purgatory House is in filtered colors. There are also title cards that show exactly when the scenes are taking place. The film has some rather cheap looking animation thrown in. Instead of taking me out of the moment this just made the whole film seem more imaginative for me.
Most of the cast underplays their roles. Considering the theme of the piece this actually worked for me. From a teens perspective the only viewpoint that matters is their own. Celeste Davis is simply brilliant. Sure she has a long way to go to hone the craft of acting and writing but for her tender years she is well on her way to great success. She wrote this story from her inner most heart and it shows. She was also the only choice to play Silver on the screen. She doesn’t act from any classes or method she just presents her character in an open and honest fashion. Jim Hanks, brother of the far more famous Tom, is great here. He plays the drag queen God with flair and panache.
Image Entertainment may be best known for their month blitz of DVD release announcements. They are one of the most prolific DVD distributors out there and as such you might have missed this title in their announcements. This would be a shame since this film deserves to be watched and owned. The video is in 1.78:1 non anamorphic and is true to the intent of the director. The Dolby 5.1 audio is wonderful. It enfolds the room and offers the intense soundtrack with clarity and power. There re several extras included. There are two making of featurettes that go beyond the typical ‘we did this then we did that’ format. It is almost a class in how to make an independent film. Of course, since this film is targeted for the younger set there is a music video. There is also some notes by Davis and some deleted scenes to round things out. This is film to watch as are the star and director. They are only going to increase in their respective crafts and this is a great first look at their talents.