Gerald is a demon in purgatory, putting in his time and slogging through a repetitive routine of wake up/commute/work and TV at home, all while watching other demons being freed from this limbo of boredom.
But then, at this job as a spirit answering queries from Ouija board users on the “other side,” Gerald develops a sweet, caring, romantic bond with his human correspondent. But while it adds happiness to their lives, they also see a limit to just how far they can take their relationship.
This fantastical short romance, directed and co-written by Tom Albanese with lead actor Joey Long, may have demons and monsters, but its conception of fantasy is rooted less in the darkly Gothic or grossly monstrous. Instead, it’s closer in tone, feel and execution to something like beloved and legendary TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” where the fantasy element doesn’t take itself seriously, but instead exists matter-of-factly in a mundane world, offering opportunities for humor, insight and eventually rich emotion.
Even the “spirit board” here — where demon workers answer queries sent over from Ouija boards from our human dimension — is treated like a boring, dull workaday job, and the fantasy elements emphasize both the relatable human aspect of it while calling humorous attention to the absurdity of modern life. It’s a cleverly conceived idea, executed in the excellent writing with a light but sure feel for immersive storytelling pacing, an eye for quirky character detail and a richly imagined world rendered in visuals that meld naturalism with almost tongue-in-cheek fantasy.
It would be easy for this story to keep piling on quirky world-building details — and there are many of them, from the bottle of “Horngaine” to the demon headbanging to metal. But instead, it chooses to deepen and focus on its main character and the eventual romance he develops with his human Ouija board partner.
Without any spoken dialogue in the film, the two main characters are forced to communicate only by Ouija board, which is treated as a kind of very slow texting. But the film uses this time and pacing to leverage its excellent performances, which both highlight the humor of the world as well as the genuine feelings of loneliness and eventually connection between the pair of otherworldly lovers.
The feelings here are understated but very real in their sincerity, and as the couple realizes how much they mean to one another — and just how they’re limited by their circumstances — the film becomes deep, resonant and eventually heartbreaking.
Often an audience favorite during its successful festival run, “A Purgatory Story” is a well-executed (but very hard to achieve) combination of fun, playful and truly moving, and it holds true to its twin imperatives to be entertaining and also emotionally engaging. As a fantasy and a romance, it has a rich, spiritually generous conception of love at its core: it’s not just about how two people make one another feel, but how they help one another with the challenges of life and become fuller, more authentic selves. Doing so helps them both move forward, though not without a piercing, even beautiful poignancy and wistfulness that feels very true to our reality.