After the passing of his wife, Theodore tries to maintain a sense of normalcy but as the life he once had begins to crumble away he decides to reach out to his grandson, Clair, who is having trouble of his own. Facing a dead end life, Clair's girlfriend leaves him and while Theodore attempts to mend the broken relationship the two to of them have, their paths cross those of Renee, a troubled teen, and Donald, a form TV star who's now a homeless drug addict.
Over the years many people have attributed the idea that comedy and tragedy are one and the same -- that you can find humor in the face of something tragic. This very idea is the core basis for "Pennsylvania Holy Ghosts" -- the independent feature debut of Ryan Pomeranz. Set amongst the town of Scranton, Ryan finds humor in the darkest of places of four characters and their tragic lives.
Theodore is a retiree who is trying to maintain a facade of normalcy and dignity after the passing of his wife. With the cracks beginning to show as his old life continues to crumble away, Theodore attempts to reach out to his grandson, Clair, who is having trouble of his own. A typical man in his mid-twenties, Clair loses his long time girlfriend due to his complacency of a humdrum life. With her leaving him heartbroken, he's being forced to face the world that he tried to ignore. They are not alone as the paths of Renee, a young teen with a troubled home life, and Donald, a former TV star but now a homeless junkie, soon intersect the lives of Theodore and Clair.
When you're making a movie that deals with life and its tragedies, I think the worst thing you can do is to build up a wall that creates a definite separation between the audience and the film. The 1983 movie "The Big Chill" comes to mind as it has some similar themes to "Pennsylvania Holy Ghosts" but ultimately fails because at no point does "The Big Chill" feel real or remotely relatable. It's a movie that looks and feels like a movie.
I ultimately had a hard time trying to put together a review for "Pennsylvania Holy Ghosts" because I didn't know what to talk about. It is a movie and it never felt like it wanted to come across as realism -- particularly with scenes such as the character Clair having a conversation with a 6-foot tall pink monster. Yet somehow, in the movie's subdued and subtle approach of the concept about complacency, monotony and choices, came something that felt real. Something that felt relatable. In a press release, it was stated that Ryan wanted to make a movie that was "brutally honest" in the depiction of the life of the four characters in the movie, and I think that's exactly what was accomplished.
"Pennsylvania Holy Ghosts" has no central plot; it is an entirely character driven piece and the movie does a fantastic job of building an intimate relationship between the audience and the characters. In part due to the non-linear editing that the movie received. I think had "Pennsylvania Holy Ghosts" followed the typical 3-act structure we, the audience, would have simply gone through the motions. Start off regarding the characters in a certain way and then by the end, left with nothing more than a feeling of indifference. As the pieces are slowly put together in "Pennsylvania Holy Ghosts" we get to understand who Clair, Theodore and Renee are as people and not just characters. We understand them better and why they are where they are in their lives. In most cinematic situations when we watch characters make the decisions that they do, or react a certain way, it causes the viewers to have a knee-jerk reaction that affects our perception, for better or worse. In this non-linear form we already know the consequences of the actions so that by the time we see how the situation has unfolded, we are still able to maintain that connection we've developed with the characters.
That desire of creating something brutally honest resulted in created something that was realistic and relatable to a point that when bad things happen we don't hate the characters, or when something absurd occurs, we're not pulled out of the movie. It maintains a persistent connection with the audience. What also aids in this believable style is that "Pennsylvania Holy Ghosts" never weighs too heavily on the drama or the comedy aspects. Again, much like how life actually is. You have to take the good with the bad. And while the characters are at their lowest points there is still some humor to be found in their situations. One, because of the relatable aspect, but also because once you accept that things are at the worst and start working towards a change are you able to look back and laugh at.
In the words of Alfred Packer: "Probably the most important thing is that when things get really bad and the world looks its darkest, you just have to throw your hands and say, 'Well, alright!' cause it's probably gonna get a whole hell of a lot worse."
It sounds terribly cynical but once you find that acceptance that yes, everything is terrible, means that you can start to move forward. Which is the journey that these characters go on and how their lives intersect are able to push everyone to realize that as bad as it is, it's never too late to move forward and continue on. And granted, not all of the bad situations are amusing in "Pennsylvania Holy Ghosts" but that dark-comedy aspect makes it possible to find the humor in the face of the personal tragedies the characters endure.
"Pennsylvania Holy Ghosts" might be a hard movie to approach or appreciate by some because it has a rather mild-mannered tone and atmosphere. There's not a grandiose plot about the movie. It's simply about life. About tragedy. About the choices we make and the affect those choices have on our lives and not to be merely content with the way things are. Ryan Pomeranz, along with his cast and crew, found a way to reflect the realism of those ideas in a subtle manner in a movie that also finds the humor, and occasionally, even the absurdity in everyday life.