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The Poker House

Ah, Jennifer Lawrence. It took a few years, but the beautiful and talented young woman is finally set to break out in a big way. From tomorrow onward, she’s going to be known in the hearts and minds of mainstream audiences as the anchor of an already-beloved blockbuster franchise. This in spite of the fact that some of my fellow geeks may remember her getting overshadowed by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender in last year’s X-Men: First Class.

But I and a select few other film buffs can actually recall first-hand the role that got Lawrence an Oscar nomination. It’s a real shame that not nearly enough people saw Winter’s Bone, because it was a damn fine movie and she was damn fine in it. I actually thought to revisit that film tonight, before going in to see The Hunger Games later this weekend. And just as the DVD was put in my laptop, I remembered a different movie. Another DVD that I had purchased during my Blockbuster raids at the start of this year.

I knew absolutely nothing about The Poker House when I first saw it on the Blockbuster shelves, but I immediately bought it sight unseen. Why? Well, the DVD was obviously dirt-cheap because of the clearance sale. But by far the more important reason was the cast. Not only did this movie star Jennifer Lawrence before Winter’s Bone, but it also featured Chloe Moretz before Kick-Ass. Two of my favorite up-and-coming actresses alongside Selma Blair, Bokeem Woodbine, and David Alan Grier. With a cast like that, I found myself wondering why it took me so long to hear about the film.

Then I dug a little deeper. It turns out that this movie was the directorial debut of Lori Petty, who’s best known for her portrayal of the title role in… wait for it… Tank Girl. Even stranger, she shares a writing credit and a producer credit for this movie with the aforementioned David Alan Grier. And you know who else is listed as a producer? None other than the late, great Stephen J. Cannell.

This was the creative team behind a supposedly gritty drama based on a true story. What the hell kind of movie was I in for?

Well, it turns out that The Poker House takes place in 1970’s Iowa, where we see a day in the life of the most dysfunctional, fucked-up, unstable, and outright toxic family that I’ve ever seen in reality or fiction. See, Agnes Bailey (Lawrence) has two younger siblings (Bee and Cammie, played by Sophia Bairley and Chloe Moretz, respectively), and all three are the daughters of Sarah, a prostitute played by Selma Blair. The closest thing that they have to a father is Sarah’s pimp (Duval, played by Bokeem Woodbine), who is of course a really scary bastard. Their biological father turned out to be an even scarier bastard whom Sarah and her kids ran away from a while back.

In any event, Sarah is shown to be completely devoid of any motherly love, not to mention that she’s an alcoholic and a crackhead to boot. Duval is far too dangerous to be trusted, and their vermin-ridden house is a destination for all manner of drunks, druggies, gamblers, thieves, hookers, and johns. Thus, Agnes takes it upon herself to be the responsible one, doing her best to be a loving mother figure for her sisters in a house where any of them could be subject to physical and/or verbal abuse at any time and without any warning. Oh, and did I mention that Agnes herself is only fourteen?

At this point, you might be asking “Where’s the comic relief?” Well, we’ve got James Earl Jones II (you heard me) and Rich Komenich as a couple of kind-hearted bums, as well as Tyla Abercrumbie playing a sassy hooker. As for David Alan Grier, he shows up as a mentally disturbed alcoholic who just sits like a vegetable on a bar stool. There’s your comic relief, folks. The movie’s comic pedigree be damned, this ain’t a feel-good movie.

That said, there are a couple of scenes here and there when Agnes can get some time alone with her sisters, away from their disastrous home life. During these scenes, the interactions between characters ring true. These are some very sweet moments, which makes it all the more heartbreaking to know that something awful is probably going to happen soon. And something awful does indeed happen, but at least it all ends well.

There really isn’t much to this movie in terms of narrative. In fact, the movie just meanders through most of its 93-minute running time, following our characters without point or purpose until the plot finally builds to its conclusion. The time until then is spent meeting our characters, often with mixed results.

The supporting cast has an awful tendency to make a solid impression in a scene or two, only to disappear completely without a trace. All of the aforementioned comic relief characters are excellent cases in point. It was painful to see such a talent as Grier so utterly wasted, especially considering that he did so much to make this film. But for me, the far bigger disappointment was Clarke Peters. Ever since I saw him in “The Wire,” I always find it a joy to see him onscreen. But in this film, he gets maybe two lines before vanishing back into the ether from whence he came. What a waste.

Still, this is a character drama at its heart and core. As such, the film lives and dies on its principal cast, and the lead actors do not disappoint. Bokeem Woodbine does a particularly awesome job at playing a true demon. He’s a very seductive and charming man, with a tongue of silver behind lips as soft and sweet as whiskey. He’s a violent and totally immoral son of a bitch, but he’s great at providing some illusion of love and loyalty. It’s easy to see why Sarah and his daughters would respect him and love him, in spite of their fear for him, which is really what makes the character work.

Then there’s Sarah. I’ve never been very impressed with Selma Blair as an actress, so color me shocked to see how much she committed to this character. It baffles me how much effort Blair put into her depiction of an emotionless trainwreck, fatally destructive to herself and everyone around her. This character could easily have been made into a two-dimensional parody of humanity, but Blair doesn’t play it that way. In Blair’s emotions, I could see brief and subtle hints of the kind and beautiful woman that Sarah used to be.

Really, the only difference between Sarah and Agnes is that Sarah threw away all hope of a better life. And it’s not because she enjoys that lifestyle, it’s just that quitting it isn’t an option anymore. She’s given up on any life other than one filled with sex, rape, bruises, drugs, and booze. Sarah is fully aware that she’s already got one foot in the grave, and she doesn’t care in the slightest. She doesn’t even care about her daughters because, as far as she’s concerned, they won’t be far behind her. This character is tragic to a truly heartbreaking degree, and Blair does a phenomenal job of selling it as such.

That said, the stars of this movie are unquestionably the three sisters, and all three of them are wonderfully portrayed. Seriously, when you’ve got three actresses on the screen and the weakest of them is Chloe Moretz, that’s saying a lot. Don’t get me wrong, Moretz still does a fine job with what she’s given, though her performance was still a lot more pwecious than I’ve come to expect from her subsequent work.

Then again, it certainly doesn’t help that Cammie has such a minimal effect on Agnes’ development (read: the movie’s central focus). She’s never seen at the Poker House at any time in the movie, so her scenes feel like they might have been cut from the film entirely with barely any effect. Then again, maybe the point is that her continued distance from the house is precisely why she’s managed to keep her innocence.

It puzzles me that Sophia Bairley hasn’t done anything since this film, though both of her onscreen sisters have gone on to bigger and better things. Bee had a lot to do in this movie, and Bairley did a fine job of breathing life into her. She did an elegant job with this difficult material, and she worked brilliantly opposite Lawrence, so I fail to understand why Bairley was the only one of the three who didn’t break out. Then again, considering she played the middle child, maybe it was inevitable that she’d get overlooked.

This brings me to Jennifer Lawrence, who carries this movie with incredible grace and strength. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that she so thoroughly nails it, considering that this character is in many ways a rough draft of the role that got her an Oscar nod. But at other times, Agnes is given a few moments of humor and levity that Ree of Winter’s Bone never did. Additionally, where Ree had a constant drive to move forward in spite of all obstacles in her path, Agnes is more like a heavy lifter who keeps shouldering heavier and heavier emotional burdens until she finally breaks.

What I’m trying to say is that Agnes called for a much wider range of emotions from Lawrence. She’s a character who gradually becomes intense and driven, which is a great development to watch in Lawrence’s hands.

Still, Agnes does have one flaw in her construction: She’s too perfect. I know that sounds strange, considering how fucked-up her home life is, but her life at school and work looks perfectly fine. Her co-workers love her, she’s got a ton of friends, she’s a straight-A student, she’s a wonderfully gifted poet, and she’s a star basketball player at her high school. Now, far be it from me to suggest that a teen living in a broken home could never do all of this. Still, such a gifted young woman would surely have nationwide college options, so why couldn’t she just leave the Poker House after a year or two and never look back? Additionally, with all that Agnes has accomplished at such a young age, how is it that she never got the confidence to stand up to her mom and her mom’s pimp until the climax of this film?

All told, Agnes’ story isn’t really one that’s new. Hers is the standard development of letting the world walk over her until she finally gets fed up, fights back, and appreciates what she has. Compare that to Ree, who spent the whole movie fighting tooth and nail to protect what little she had. Agnes had friends and teammates who were perfectly willing to provide all the support she needed, while Ree went through the whole film with a target on her back. Lawrence does a fine job with Agnes and all, but there isn’t a doubt in my mind that Ree is the more interesting character and the better performance.

As for the design of this movie… I just don’t know about the period setting. There are a few references to the ’70s in terms of technology and cultural references (there’s an 8-track joke near the end that’s particularly funny), but something about it just felt off. I’m not sure I can put my finger on why, exactly, but I suspect that most of it has to do with the fact that the ’70s setting didn’t really add anything. The film could just as easily have taken place in the modern day or any time in between, and practically nothing would have changed. Then again, most of the film takes place in a broken-down hovel, and I don’t think that the concept of a “broken-down hovel” has changed all that much in the past 40 years.

Perhaps the far bigger problem is the color. In every film depiction of the ’70s that I’ve ever seen, the sets and costumes were all extremely bright and colorful. But with very few exceptions, every frame of this movie looks like it was processed with bleach bypass. The colors of this film were probably muted so the film might look more gritty and emotionally void, but it has the side effect of making it look just like any other “gritty” movie released in recent memory, regardless of when it took place.

On its own merit, The Poker House is an outstanding showcase for the actors involved. Even if the plot gets a little cliched and/or directionless, the dialogue and the performances are all more than good enough to see this movie through. Looking at the big picture, The Poker House feels like a warm-up. It feels like something that the cast and crew did as a stepping stone to bigger, better projects. I particularly get this vibe from the talented supporting cast members, all of whom appear just long enough to put this on their resumes. Jennifer Lawrence and Chloe Moretz put in some good work here, but they both went on to do far superior work in other very mature roles.

Last but not least, it’s worth remembering that this movie was Lori Petty’s directorial debut. And as of this writing, she hasn’t taken on another directing gig. I find that a shame, personally. Even if the film may not have been perfect, it was still amazing for a first try. I’d be interested to see what she learned about filmmaking from this, but I guess we may never know.

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