Ah, this one brings back memories of those old "socially relevant" films so popular in the 70's that appealed to a nation's moral conscience. Is it any wonder, then, that the filmmakers of this 2008 release, "The Poker House," set it in 1976? Not that social relevance has disappeared from filmmaking, mind you. It's just that studios have discovered that special effects and things blowing up make more money. Anyway, even though the makers of "The Poker House" claim to have based their story on actual people and events, which they probably did, the truth is that the people and events are so specific to the author and so overstated that they tend to weaken the film's impact, making it less universally inspiring that it might have been.
Now, don't get me wrong: "The Poker House" involves tremendously serious and important issues, like child abuse, parental neglect, drug addiction, prostitution, alcoholism, and other societal ills. It's just that the film lays it out so thick, it's like piling on. Think about it: The main characters are three young girls growing up in a Midwestern household where the mother is a drugged-out, alcoholic prostitute; the mother's boyfriend is a pimp and a gambler; and assorted johns, whores, and lowlifes come and go at every hour. Sure, these kinds of people and circumstances really exist, and they provide no decent environment for young people. But putting them together in one place seems to make a one-of-a-kind situation that's a little harder to believe, let alone sympathize with, than if the movie had stuck with just one such concern.
Still, the acting is so good and the girls' struggle to get along and rise above their oppression is so affecting, it's hard to knock the film's intentions. The movie tells us that its co-writer and director, Lori Petty, based the story on her own life, but how much the movie doesn't say. Ms. Petty's brief biography at IMDb doesn't reveal too much of anything like what we see in the film. And there is that contradiction in the end credits that says "the characters and events are fictitious." I dunno. I guess we must resign ourselves to the fact that characters and events like the ones in the movie do, indeed, exist and that many such folks overcome their dire situations to make something of themselves. In this regard the film is a resounding success.
The setting is Council Bluffs, Iowa, in the mid Seventies. Fourteen-year-old Agnes (Jennifer Lawrence) is trying her best to cope and help her two younger sisters, Bee (Sophia Bairley) and Cammie (Chloe Grace Moretz), cope with their desperately hopeless home life. Agnes narrates the story in a voice-over and represents the writer-director herself. She's smart, pretty, spunky, and the star of her high school's girls' basketball team when she's not reading or writing poetry. But what hell she has to endure just making through each day with a mother, Sarah (Selma Blair), who clearly doesn't want her and a pimp, Duval (Bokeem Woodbine), as her only close contact. Agnes's mother not only doesn't love or respect any of her kids, she thinks it's about time Agnes followed in her footsteps; and Duval not only mistreats her but agrees with the mother to pimp her out. Could any situation be more damaging for a young person on the threshold of adulthood, especially a person with such tremendous potential as Agnes has and no one to appreciate or encourage it?
To make matters worse (if they could possibly be any worse), Agnes's real father was a preacher who years ago beat his wife and children and then abandoned them. The family now lives in one of the poorest areas of town in a place known locally as "the poker house" because it's also a gambling den and brothel. And virtually every character we meet until the end of the movie is a foulmouthed pervert, junkie, drunkard, hooker, or bum. More piling on.
The girls have only their love for one another to hold them together and keep them afloat in this cesspool of a life. Interestingly, Cammie loves TV soap operas, which a friend tells her "aren't real." Yet, ironically, the movie exaggerates its characters more than we'd find in any television soap. Particularly droll is one eccentric character named Stymie (David Alan Grier, a co-writer of the script), who hangs out at a bar all day speaking in sudden high-pitched staccato bursts.
"The Poker House" takes a rather long time meandering lazily from one event to the next, telling a familiar tale that one can easily see unfolding ahead of time, without a lot happening until the inevitable climax involving Agnes and Duval. Moreover, Ms. Petty has a penchant for slow, protracted shots that do little to reveal any character traits we don't already know. Nonetheless, the film moves with a lyrical grace, a poetry that Agnes would no doubt appreciate. More important, Ms. Blair puts in a fine, convincing performance as the uncaring mother, and Ms. Lawrence is so persuasive we must mark her as a rising star. It is her story, her movie, and she's the best thing in it. For this reason alone, "The Poker House" may be worth the watch.
Phase 4 Films present the movie in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio using an anamorphic transfer, enhanced for widescreen TVs. The image is somewhat rough, with a small degree of noise, grain, and white flecks, yet the roughness tends to complement the film's dark, dour tone. The colors, too, seem gloomy, slightly drained of vitality like the happenings they represent. Definition, though, is fairly good, especially upscaled, and the results seem entirely appropriate to the nature of the film.
The audio engineers offer the soundtrack in Dolby Digital 5.1 and, for reasons unknown, in 2.0 stereo. Not that there is a lot to choose between them. I listened in 5.1, but it might as well have been two-channel stereo. There is a restricted spread across the front speakers, only occasionally opening up to something wider depending on the nature of the background music playing. What's more, there is little activity in the surround channels. What works best is the smooth, clear midrange response, which serves the dialogue comfortably.
The primary bonus item is an audio commentary by writer-director Lori Petty. In it, Ms. Petty reveals a greater level of insight than anything the movie provides, so at least we can see what her intentions were, even if she didn't always succeed in producing a movie as unique as she'd probably have liked. After the commentary are twelve scene selections, a brief photo-gallery montage, a non-anamorphic widescreen trailer, several trailers at start-up only, English as the spoken language, and Spanish subtitles.
The movie's epilogue reads, "Agnes left Iowa for New York City to become an artist. Twenty years later she wrote and directed this film." Well, of course, we saw that coming from the beginning of the picture. "The Poker House" is a very personal film, told in a very personal manner, and its author's individual touches are everywhere evident.
Note, however, that "The Poker House" is also a largely depressing film on a depressing subject, with a plot that unfolds quite predictably, so it's no wonder the film saw only limited screenings before making its DVD debut. Nevertheless, as I've said, the acting is so consistently engaging, especially from Lawrence and Blair, that a viewer cannot help but feel compassion for the youngsters trapped amidst seemingly hopeless conditions. That the youngsters make it out at all is one of the great joys of the movie.