The Poker House (Lori Petty, 2008): USA

Reviewed by Richard Feilden.  Viewed at the LA International Film Festival

The Poker House is Lori Petty’s first foray into feature film directing, although she is already well known for her acting roles in films such as A League of Their Own and Tank Girl. Based on her own traumatic childhood, Petty has produced a compelling product with The Poker House.

Agnes (Jennifer Lawrence) is Petty’s fourteen year old alter ego and has, if you’ll forgive the gambling reference, been dealt a pretty poor hand in life. Residing in the titular abode with her two younger sisters, she is the daughter of a prostitute (Selma Blair) whose days are a blur of beatings, coke and entertaining the men who use her front room as a gambling den. Surrounded by corruption and temptation, Agnes turns to her mother’s pimp to replace the absent maternal love and to poetry and the basketball court for emotional and physical release. She desperately seeks to protect her sisters whilst clinging onto the shreds of her own innocence which are always at the point of being torn from her.

The film lives or dies on its performers, and thus a heavy weight is placed upon the shoulders of its young leads, as well as the supporting cast. Thankfully they are up to the task. From the orange-soda fuelled hyperactivity of Cammie (Chloe Grace Moretz) and the desperately mature Bee lining up with the homeless to trade her collection of empty bottles for sherbet and candy, to Agnes herself, the sisters inhabit their roles effortlessly, with an on-screen chemistry which leaves you with a real sense of family. The rest of the cast is excellent as well, with Selma Blair almost unrecognizable with her ratty blonde hair and hollow eyes. Her callous interactions with her eldest daughter, belittling Agnes and attempting to push the girl into going on the game herself, are as hard to watch as they should be.

The film does have its flaws however. Cammie’s bar snack-consuming scenes seem to offer little bar moments of comic relief as she shouts at soap opera characters, bemoaning their lack of sense. I also found it hard to invest in Agnes’s basketball game at the end of the film, coming as close as it did on the tail of the film’s most horrific moments. It is highly likely that I’m simply not as strong a character as Agnes herself, but I found it hard to let go of what had come before. Equally, I wanted to know what happened next. Unlike a film such as 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, this film isn’t a journey towards a traumatic event; it is a reflection on a life into which one falls. As wonderfully presented as Agnes and her family’s life was, by the end of the film I found myself more interested in what happened next. How did the girls cope with what had happened to them? I wish the film had come to its turning point sooner, and then showed me the fallout.

Overall though, this film comes highly recommended and is easily one of the best films I have seen at the festival. If Petty can produce such vivid depictions of events outside of her realm of personal experiences, then her career as a writer and director will be one to which I will pay very keen attention.

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