In her directorial debut, Lori Petty grapples with a traumatic adolescent experience in which she was raped by her mother’s pimp. It’s grisly business to be sure, though “The Poker House’s” bittersweet tone suggests the project was conceived not for revenge, but as a way of celebrating the strength Petty and her two younger sisters found in such dysfunctional straits. Whether audiences take any comfort in Petty’s personal catharsis remains to be seen, as her approach likely negates the pic’s commercial prospects. But after confronting these painful events on film, the reclusive actress now seems free to move forward artistically.
In tone, “The Poker House” most closely resembles Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides,” favoring emotionally steeped impressions over a linear plot. Though auds may sense the rape scene lurking near the end, Petty avoids the tension-plucking of a made-for-TV exploitation pic. Instead, the story unfolds as a sequence of semi-hypnotic vignettes set over a 24-hour period in 1976 on the rough side of Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Petty relies on heavy narration from Jennifer Lawrence, who plays her 14-year-old proxy, Agnes as a cross between basketball-playing tomboy and bookworm, substitute mother and bright-eyed dreamer.
As the title suggests, Agnes lives in a highly unsavory environment for children, a run-down house where neighborhood black men come for drinking, gambling and sex. Her own mother, Sarah (played as a makeup-smeared, coke-snorting caricature by Selma Blair), is one of two prostitutes, turning tricks while her daughters plug their ears upstairs.
The movie yearns for the lost naivete that allowed the girls to see past their circumstances, with Petty attempting to capture the ephemeral feelings that defined her youth. Middle child Bee (Sophia Bairley) rises at the break of dawn and sets out on her paper route; she winds up at the corner drugstore, trading glass bottles for pocket change. Baby Cammie (Chloe Grace Moretz) sleeps over at a neighbor’s house and spends the day at the local bar, eating goldfish crackers among drunks.
As for Agnes, she beams when Duval (Bokeem Woodbine) pays her attention, stealing kisses from him in the kitchen, yet oblivious to the sexual dimension of her flirtations. Woodbine exudes the magnetism and danger that might ensnare such a vulnerable young thing.
Petty herself remains offscreen, but assembles an impressive cast to re-create her childhood. Though the screenplay, co-written by David Alan Grier (who reserves a hilarious supporting role for himself), never points it out directly, Agnes and her sisters are frequently the only white people among their African-American peers. The characters all speak in the stilted style of an over-earnest stage play, in stark contrast to the subtle, texture-oriented attention the pic gives to nonverbal details.
Projected digitally instead of on film at the pic’s Los Angeles Film Fest screening, Ken Seng’s 35mm cinematography has the gritty, green-tinged look of the “Saw” series, while the foley suggests the too-crisp sound of having been overcooked in post. Awkward compositions observe without getting into the heads of the characters, and scenes frequently end with the picture slowly blurring out of focus as one memory fades into the next. Overall, the pacing feels languid to the point of meandering, relying too heavily on old soul records (and a final eight-track sing-along) for momentum and energy.