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Movie Review - Purgatory House

October 31st, 2004

Purgatory House tells the story of Silver Strand, a 14-year-old girl who recently committed suicide to get away from the pain and grief of her life, only to discover her afterlife will be filled with everything she tried to escape.

There have been many films about teen angst in general and suicide in specific, but rarely have their emotions rung as true as they do in this film. You can easily tell that this was a deeply personal project for Celeste Marie Davis, the star and screenwriter and Cindy Baer, the producer and director. Hollywood's attempts to reach teenagers usually fail because they have forgotten what it's like to live in the real world or because they have a single moral lesson they are trying to teach. Call it the Curse of the After School Special.

The story is told in three distinct timelines. First, the events leading up to Silver's suicide, which mostly take place one or two months prior to that event and it's in this timeline that we see the turmoil her life was in. Her father recently remarried and there's a kid on the way, she's failing school, she's addicted to drugs and her boyfriend is her pusher, her friendship with her best friend ends and more. The second timeline shows the circumstances of the actual suicide and the immediate consequences, the whimsical journey to heaven, her encounter with God and her being placed in Purgatory House. And lastly, the heart of the story takes place two months after she was sentenced to eternity in Purgatory after Silver has acclimatized to her new surroundings. And although this is the last part of the movie chronologically, it is where the film initially starts.

Besides jumping between these three timelines, there's another twist, as part of their punishment residents of Purgatory House are forced to watch a giant TV tuned to earthTV where they see their friends and family mourn their deaths, deal with their loss and eventual move on with their lives. Following these leaps may seem like it would be confusing, but there are titles that tell you exactly when and where the scene takes place, ("Purgatory House, Day 62 7:30 a.m.") There are also more aesthetic cues like the switching between Black and White and Color or subtle, and some not so subtle filter effects to indicate these changes. These not only remove any confusion; they also add a sense of style.

Most of the cast of Purgatory House are making their feature debuts, but this doesn’t hurt the film. Collectively the acting is very good, especially by Celeste Marie Davis as Silver Strand and Jim Hanks as both Saint James and God, two very different roles. And yes, he is related to Tom Hanks, (they're brothers.) Some of the secondary characters were not as well acted, in some cases so much so that it was distracting. Fortunately they were minor characters with little screen time.

There were a few points that while not major points giving the film a positive review were nonetheless worth mentioning.

First of all, the music selection for the movie was also great with a good mix of classics, contemporary and original music. However it left me wondering who choose the music, because there are not many 14 year olds who are into Blue Öyster Cult or Steppenwolf.

Secondly, as with any movie with religious themes, there is a potential to offend, this has less to do with the actual content of the film and more to do with the highly sensitive nature of religion. (Another such film is Saved!.) The most likely aspect to offend is the portrayal of God, who is played by Jim Hanks … as a game show host … in drag. … Ok, I can see why that might offend some people. But as a whole the film is respectful of religion without sounding preachy, which is another possible peril of religious films.

Lastly, when looking at reviews, previews and even the marketing material, one of the first points people make was that the film was written entirely by a 14 year old girl. I was worried that this was a case of damning it with faint praise, 'It's a good film, considering a 14-year-old wrote it.' But Purgatory House is a good film, regardless who wrote it and how old they were at the time. It is impressive that Celeste Marie Davis is perhaps the youngest person to ever been given sole writing credit for a feature length film, by focusing on the age of the screenwriter so much they were doing a disservice to the film.

This is one of those films that shows exactly what's wrong with a lot of films coming out of Hollywood today. Scripts are written by committee, with re-write after re-write by people who have no emotional connection to the work. As you watch this film you connect with the characters and grow to care about them, mainly because the people involved in making the movie cared about them as well. And that makes reviewing films like this is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I get to see quality films that few other people will get a chance to see. On the other hand, it makes dealing with the usual Hollywood film so much harder, because I know that for every big-budget schlockfest throw our way there's too many quality independent films that will probably never see the light of day.

Purgatory House just finished a 12-festival run winning 6-awards, including Celeste Marie Davis winning "Best Screenplay" at the San Diego Film Festival and Best Feature Performance at the Silverlake Film Festival. It also won "Best First Feature" twice as well as two audience awards. Worldwide distribution rights are still available. For further news and contact information, check out the Official Site.

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