Most depressing tales of angst-ridden teenagers who end up taking their lives end with the miserable demise of said teen. In a sly switch, indie-flick "Purgatory House" BEGINS with the main character's suicide and follows her elucidating visit to the Purgatory House. It's a fairly compelling movie as it stands, but when one realizes that the screenplay was penned by one 14-year-old gal...it adds a whole new perspective to all the angst being tossed around.Lest you think you're in for something laden with omnipresent gloom 'n doom, Cindy Baer's Purgatory House succeeds early and often by approaching its deluge of topical angst with a sly and occasionally loopy sense of humor. Combined with the raw-yet-effective lead performance by the same young lady who penned the script, you're looking at a shot-on-digital film fest-type indie flick that's more challenging and interesting than it is pretentious and boring.
And if you spend a lot of time around film festivals, you can surely appreciate the distinction.
Purgatory House is the story of the recently-demised Silver Strand, a 14-year-old who struggles through those early years that many of us have simply blocked from our memories. Those horribly insecure times, the moments when you're sure that you're the most physically misshapen and emotionally retarded creature on the planet. The age when bullying involves words that hurt a lot more than fists do; when drugs and alcohol and cigarettes and sexuality and all of adulthood's rough edges begin to find purchase in one's mind.
Silver overdoses on pills and ends up in Purgatory House, which is a lot like an eternal halfway house for teens who've opted for suicide. Here she finds a collection of newly-dead malcontents and disgruntled young adults still mad at the world...despite the fact that they're no longer really a part of it. Silver spends much of her time watching the lives of her former friends and family members on "Earth TV" while bemoaning her need for a second chance. The house's authority figures (including God - in drag) offer hints vague at best, so Silver and a newfound potential boyfriend begin to hatch a scheme to earn their second chance at life.
Preachy on only an intermittent basis and perhaps in need of just a bit of pruning here and there, Purgatory House consistently belies its earthy (see: cheaply-made) leanings by presenting a story that's both fascinating to absorb and compelling to contemplate. That the screenplay was written by a person firmly entrenched within the purgatory we call puberty lends a rough-edged sincerity that helps one forgive the more static moments.
It's clear that director Cindy Baer and actor/writer Celeste Davis have a host of things to say about the plight of the modern teenager, and it shows a smart sense of instinct that the filmmakers opted to present such a potentially bleak tale with healthy doses of clever (and often arcane) humor. Baer and Davis met as part of the "Big Sisters" program, and their relationship went from that of mentor and friend to director and lead actor. At one point considered an "at-risk teen", Celeste Davis can now look up to see the film she wrote playing at this year's Woodstock Film Festival.Movies like this one (made inexpensively on digital video, no big stars, no explosions, some artsy stuff on display and a little thinking may be required) are not for everyone, but that's just fine. What I see is a pair of fascinating stories, one in front of the camera and another one behind it.