Dodging the nasty After School Special bullet, “Purgatory House” is a charming, touching, clever and all-around brilliantly crafted film about teen suicide. The key to its success? The story was written by a 14-year-old girl.
After committing suicide, Silver Marie Strand finds herself residing in the afterlife home of Purgatory House, the place between heaven and hell where suicides go. Purgatory House is shown to be a sort of psychiatric hospital with group sessions taking place daily. When not discussing their problems in group, each resident gets a torture session, which finds them sitting in front of a widescreen TV tuned into the lives of their friends and family as they have to deal, often clueless, with their deaths. Day in, day out, it’s the same old routine, but Silver has the strength, not only to discover what a waste her death has been, but possibly a way to make amends.
A lot of that same strength resides within writer Celeste Marie Davis, who also plays Silver Marie Strand in the film. Several years ago, when Celeste was eleven-years-old, she was matched with actress Cindy Baer through the Big Sisters of Los Angeles program. As their relationship blossomed, Cindy realized what a major writing talent Celeste had. Striking her most was Celeste’s story about a teenage girl who commits suicide and has to live for eternity in purgatory with her peers. Cindy knew this needed to be turned into a film, so she chose it as her directorial debut. Soon after, a 14-year-old Celeste was working on her first screenplay, a year later, she would star in the leading role.
The result is something that filmmakers trying to reach teenagers have fumbled for years…forever actually. The reason why those old After School Specials were always so fake and even humorous was because you could tell that there was some old fart behind a camera trying to convey a “hard-hitting” message he was hired to push upon you. These films were stale just as they were being filmed. And they mostly always starred people you would see on “Circus of the Stars” the following Friday, jumping through a ring of fire with a tiger hot on their tail. These films basically served for background entertainment while real kids did drugs in front of them. But “Purgatory House” presents its story of troubled youth honestly from a writer who knows best. If all After School Specials were like this, maybe we wouldn’t have had so many teen suicides in the past.