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STUDIO: Phase Four Films
RUNNING TIME: 93 min
Audio Commentary with writer/director Lori Petty
Poker House Trailer
The star of Tank Girl teams up with the 2nd lead of Blankman to direct a dramatic portrayal of her formative years on the rough side of Council Bluffs, Iowa. The Box Office escapes the blaze of interest relatively unscathed.
Jennifer (The Burning Plain) Lawrence, Bokeem (3000 Miles To Graceland, Black Dynamite) Woodbine, Selma (Hellboy, That One Scene From Cruel Intentions) Blair, David (In Living Color, In The Army Now) Alan Grier.
“What do you mean, you’re the one who has to walk out of here alone in the dark? Mister? Mister, I don’t get it. Hey, Mister! Mister?”
Agnes is a girl who will one day be a mildly famous, extremely non-voluptuous woman. But the “The Poker House”, where she lives amidst drugs, prostitution, and general depravity, is a very long way away from the artistic validation of Point Break. A drab, frequently humorless slice of life/coming of age drama will be necessary to put her on the road to Keanu’s loving arms.
All movies are personal to their creators, that’s a given. But when the subject matter is this harsh, and so expressly autobiographical, it becomes very difficult to criticize it as simply a movie without seeming to insult or dismiss the creator’s entire life story. Nonetheless, I (being fortuitously heartless and callow in character) will now proceed to criticize the story of Petty’s teen years, spent raising herself and two young sisters in a rundown whorehouse, enduring the drugs and poverty and abuse at the hands her mother’s pimp that come along the way.
The big problem is that the autobiographical elements make the film hard to view on its own merits, and they cannot be simply ignored due to a clunky postscript. This makes it thuddingly explicit that the story is true, and the film is to a significant extent a therapeutic exercise for the protagonist/filmmaker. This in turn makes the viewer feel even dirtier for having seen some of the traumatic events in the film, and for me at least, even a little guilty at being underwhelmed by their portrayal.
Another more conventional problem is that Petty seems intent on cramming as much detail from her youth into the scant 93 minutes as possible as possible, which wouldn’t be much of a problem except the action is compressed into a single day for standard dramatic purposes. This kitchen sink approach leaves the film without a strong throughline, and raises some distracting logistical questions (such as why our plucky heroine’s schedule seems so open despite all the jobs and responsibilities and hobbies she apparently juggles). Including so much stuff because it is true rather than because it serves the story also means that only one or two relationships really get fleshed out, to the point where the main character does not even share any screen time with one of her sisters until the final scene. Finally, any critique would be remiss not to give special notice to co-screenwriter David Alan Grier for his “Holy-shit-is-he-serious”-ly bad extended cameo as a mentally unbalanced, shouty barfly.
The film is not without its merits. Much of the period detail and random character interaction does ring true, even if its accumulation eventually muddles the story. And the cinematography has a cold, dreary quality that is mostly effective at capturing the worst part of a Midwestern winter, where it’s not snowy but gray and frigid and seems like it’s five o’clock in the morning all day long. “Gray” is apt to describe the tone as well as the color scheme, actually. There are some attempts at humor, but they are mostly kinda cute rather than genuinely funny, and too tepid to crack the grimace evoked by the pervasive squalor of the characters’ lives. I know the poverty is supposed to be oppressive, but a few real laughs would have gone a long way toward making the setting feel more authentic and alive.
The movie’s biggest asset is definitely the lead performance of Jennifer Lawrence, who makes an admirable attempt to carry the movie on her teenage shoulders as Petty’s stand-in, Agnes. She has instant chemistry with pretty much all her co-stars, which is lucky because she only gets one scene to play off most of them. Also strong are Bokeem Woodbine, playing the kind of sleazy but magnetic criminal that resides firmly in his wheelhouse, and Selma Blair, plumming impressively grotesque depths as Agnes’s odious junkie mother. It’s unfortunate that the movie comes out to less than the sum of these assets, because with a little more focus and a stronger vein of humor, this could’ve been a really good movie. It’s not, but Lawrence still comes away having proven she has a future as a leading lady, and Petty that she is capable of an evocative, if not exactly inviting, visual style.
Bare bones all the way, with some hazy floating head cover art and little in the way of features besides Petty’s surprisingly upbeat but uninformative commentary. She has plenty of praise for her cast and crew, but little to say about the most interesting aspects of the production, like how it felt to dredge up such painful memories to create the script, how her family reacted to their depictions, or the challenges of directing others in the portrayal of your life. Utterly skippable unless you’re one of those who just can’t get enough of Petty’s dulcet tones.