August 26, 2009


Based on the director’s own experiences, “The Poker House” chronicles a day in the life of three sisters in small-town Iowa. The protagonist is Agnes, who is meant to be first-time director Lori Petty. She is fourteen years old but, as she states, “nobody’d believe it.” As the oldest of three sisters living with their drug-addicted, prostitute mother, she takes the place as the head of the family. The father is out of the picture and replaced by the mother’s pimp, who crosses the line in his relationship with Agnes.  The other two sisters, Bee and Cammie, have also been forced to grow up too fast. Bee holds a job delivering papers and Cammie escapes to a friend’s house where she has a safe place to sleep and food to eat. The film is dark and gritty, portraying children living in a downtrodden environment with a mother too gone to care. It’s more than just poverty that is the problem; there’s also the absence of parental love. Petty gives the audience a glimpse into her rather tragic childhood. However, the fact that she wrote and directed the film, which was part of the Los Angeles Film Festival, offers some positive light on a very humbling story. My full review after the jump:

TPH_Bokeem Woodbine and Selma Blair in kitchen.jpgAs a small independent film, “The Poker House” seeks to be more profound than showy. This is able to work thanks to some really great performances. The honesty of the acting stops the film from seeming melodramatic or dull. Selma Blair (“Kath & Kim”, “Hellboy II: The Golden Army”) is superb as the girls’ mother, showing range in her ability to play this heartbreaking character. It’s a contrast to her many comedic roles, but she shines, especially in her monologue late in the film, a truly tragic, nearly intimate moment. She also looks extraordinarily skinny, which helps create the effect. Jennifer Lawrence (“The Bill Engvall Show”) gives an impressive performance as Agnes, the protagonist and narrator of the film. The youngest sister, Cammie, is played Chloe Moretz (“500 Days of Summer”) who gives the character intelligence and quirkiness. By the end of the film, it’s easy to become invested in all three sisters, hoping they are able to somehow transform their depressing beginnings into meaningful lives. Bokeem Woodbine (“Three Bullets”) is appropriately creepy as the mother’s pimp.

TPH_Jennifer Lawrence as Agnes2.jpgThe visual elements in the film reflect the sad, broken environment that the characters are a product of.  This aids in showing the seriousness of their troubles and the motivations behind their actions. The music, however, is sometimes a little cheesy and takes away from the overall quality of the film.

“The Poker House” deals with a lot of tough issues and, though it’s not completely pessimistic, one shouldn’t expect to leave feeling upbeat. It does have a rape scene with a minor, which might be too disturbing for some to watch. It was an engrossing film, despite not being the type I’d normally be drawn to. The fact that it’s quite short also keeps it from dragging. I wouldn’t say I adored the film, nor would I watch it more than once, but it did succeed in many ways. For a directorial debut, “The Poker House” did an admirable job. It’s really nice to see the beautiful bond between these sisters that developed in spite of, or perhaps because of, their unfortunate childhood.

Special Features:

The DVD features an audio commentary with writer/director Lori Petty. A lot of times commentaries with only one person are boring, but Lori Petty is funny and really enthusiastic about the movie. The DVD also includes the film’s trailer and a slideshow of production photos.  The special features are nothing out of the ordinary, but the commentary is worth watching.

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