Having never heard of Purgatory House, which was written by a 14-year-old girl, I was expecting a simplistic film. Instead, the film delivered complex themes of teen isolation, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as cutting, suicide and the afterlife, all while capturing exactly what it's like to be a teenager in this day and age.
To lay the groundwork for the film, one must first understand how it came to be. It all started when actress/director/producer Cindy Baer was paired with Celeste Davis through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in Los Angeles when Davis was just 11 years old.
As their friendship grew, Davis' home life was unraveling--she was withdrawing from her farther and step-mother, and losing interest in school and friends. By age 14, Davis was living in a teen shelter, and when Baer set about looking for a new project, she turned to Davis, knowing that the teen had been working on a script called Purgatory House. As the project came to fruition, Davis and Baer both became invested in the project in every sense of the word.
In the film, Davis, in her first feature-film role, portrays Silver Strand, a teen struggling to fit in and overcome the pressures today's youth face--drug, alcohol, sex and violence--but the struggle becomes more than she can bear, so she takes her own life.
Having failed at the game show "Who Wants To Go To Heaven?" and consequently not accepted into heaven, Strand is left in Purgatory, sentenced to watch everyone she left behind cope and move on.
In this Purgatory, those left behind are watched on "earth TV", Strand gets "torture breaks" throughout the day, and she is required to wear the same clothes and makeup she had on when she ended her life. She is also given an all-access pass to drugs and alcohol, whch is pretty much just what she had on earth.
In Purgatory, God is a drag queen (played brilliantly by Jim Hanks, whose recent acting credits include the TV show Scrubs) and always referred to as "she". The cast is rounded out by a handful of fresh faces/newcomers, including Devin Witt as Atticis; Johnny Pacar as Strand's boyfriend Sam; and Eric Jester as Jessie.
Although this film was made on a shoestring budget, it's hard to tell with all the visual effects utilized. It features over 200 visual effects, including the use of both green and blue screen shots, and was filmed on miniDVD, which is new territory for filmmaking.
Shot with an XL1S digital camera, Purgatory House employs many interesting and creative visual techniques to create amazing special effects. The film is presented in widescreen in its 1.78:1 theatrical aspect ratio.
With the option of Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo, the sound quality of Purgatory House is exceptional. Plus, they use rockin' music, as well as original music by John Swihart.
This DVD is heavy on the extras, and they are well worth sitting through. "The Making of Purgatory House" tells the back story of the project, as well as explains the process Baer went through, having never made a film before. From casting, to hiring crew, to location scouting, this little-over-half-hour extra could be considered a crash course in making a low-budget film that doesn't appear low budget. That the 18-day shoot ended two days before 9/11 somehow seems fitting, given the nature of the film.
"Putting It All Together" explores what happened after the cameras stopped rolling and Baer had to sift through hundreds of hours of footage. The editing process, which took 10 weeks, was yet another crash course for Baer, but luckily that didn't stop her from employing every technique she could think of to create a visually innovative film. This extra also explained the choice of publicity for the film, as well as the music selections and mixing process.
Other extras include Claire's Prayer, a music video by Larisa Stow; footage from the Los Angeles' Purgatory House premiere; two deleted scenes; two trailers for Purgatory House; "Free Me" (an ad for thursdayschild.org); and, last but certainly not least, Silver's note/confession to her father, which was a nice touch, as it was referred to in the movie but the contents were never revealed (which, by the way, didn't hinder the plot).
In one of my favorite scenes in the film, when a representative from the "Save a Life, Tell Someone" organization (played by director Baer) speaks to Strand's classmates about her suicide, it becomes evident that each student is carrying his or her own burden, be it anorexia, drug abuse, promiscuity, or even the pressure of keeping straight A's.
In the end, Strand must realize that any chance of a better life can only happen among the living. As God tells her, "If you wanted to change, you should have stayed there."
Juliet Farmer, aka writnkitten