I've mentioned it in previous reviews, and it's a pretty famous Roger Ebert quote, but it bears repeating: it's not what a movie is about, but how it is about it that's important. Take The Poker House, a new film co-written and directed by actress Lori Petty based on her own experiences. The story focuses on three girls trying to survive inside a broken home, contending with their drunk, coke-addled, prostitute mother Sarah (Selma Blair), her pimp Duval (Bokeem Woodbine), lack of food, abuse, neglect and rape. The truth, as sad as it may seem, is that even if the story is personal to Petty, it's certainly a topic touched on by thousands of movies already. What matters, though, is the performances of her three young actresses, Jennifer Lawrence, Sophia Bairley and Chloe Grace Moretz, who effortlessly form an emotional connection that carries the film when the script does not.
At the front of the trio is Jennifer Lawrence. As Agnes, our narrator, we watch as she scrapes her way through what must be a tiring daily routine: kick out any strangers still lingering after the night before, pack up papers for Bee (Bairley) to deliver, try to find something to eat, and deal with her mother. The main thing that I feel stumbles young actors is the smooth delivery of challenging dialogue, but Lawrence quietly nails every "ain't" and "damn" with ease. She's especially good when sharing scenes with Woodbine, whose soft-spoken delivery hides an angry underneath. Agnes and Duval sit at the kitchen table and exchange slightly cutting remarks, culminating in a disturbing kiss that reveals the pair's dangerous, inappropriate relationship.
The third sister, Cammie (Moretz) escapes by staying at her friend Sheila's house. Cammie's worldview seems untarnished, fitting in perfectly with Sheila and her father Daniel, who drives her to get something to eat. She sits at the bar all day and drinks cherry orange juice and eats goldfish, asking questions of waitress Dolly and the mentally disabled Stymie (co-writer David Alan Grier). Cammie and Agnes only have one scene in the whole movie together, but it seems clear that even though she spends her whole day at a bar, Agnes somehow knows that Cammie will be better off there. Similarly, Bee has a friendly relationship with a couple of local homeless men, while Agnes weathers her mother's storm.
The performances by these three girls are more than just suitable for the movie, they seem fully realized. Within a mere 93 minutes, it's amazing how much I felt I knew about their personalities and lives. Since Petty's screenplay draws from her own life, I'm sure plenty of this was on the page, but there's something extra about the starry-eyed looks that Lawrence gives Woodbine, the way that Moretz watches the cherries sink into her orange juice, the joy with which Bairley selects a dollar fifty worth of candy she gets from trading in empty bottles at the local convenience store. All three of these actors are more than destined to go on to do great things.
The question, though, is what the movie wants to say about these girls, primarily Agnes and her life trying to protect the world's hardships from her younger sisters. (Mild spoiler ahead.) The movie's major plot point occurs three-fourths of the way through, when Duval rapes Agnes. The following scene, with Agnes and her mother in the bathroom, is heartbreaking and painful, but the movie doesn't seem to know where to go from there. I'm not necessarily criticizing the scenes that occur afterwards as bad in and of themselves, but it's hard to grasp what the overall point the movie is making is meant to be or what Petty wants to say with her movie. I'm also not saying the movie needs to have some sort of a message, but when the credits rolled I was still unsure of Petty's intent.
The Poker House plays like what it is, a snapshot of someone else's history; a strange, fictionalized retelling of actual events (a point rammed home by the film's slightly clunky text epilogue). As things generally are in real life, it's hard to tell what exactly one is supposed to gain or learn from the experience. It's a bit of an emotional enigma, a puzzle compounded by the three excellent performances at its center. I couldn't tell anyone how they're supposed to feel at the end of the movie, but I can say that parts of the film are alive and invigorating. If you have the stomach and the patience, it's worth considering.
The Poker House gets an attractive-looking DVD cover, even if the image itself isn't particularly invigorating (big heads are the order of the day). The back cover continues the subdued but nice-looking color scheme and a not-too-cramped layout. There is no insert, and the disc has a painted surface with the title on it.
The Poker House has a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation that initially tricked me into thinking it was fairly flawless. Petty's lighting scheme is rich and vivid, and the transfer has very strong contrast levels, filled with shadows and rich, inky blacks. Upon closer inspection, however, I'm sure I spotted some faint digital artifacting and grain manifesting itself on people's faces, and, bafflingly, a few flecks of print damage, even though the movie is only a year old. On a small TV, I doubt viewers will spot the flaws, but those with larger displays might start to see the cracks in the presentation.
There's a fairly well-mixed Dolby Digital 5.1 track included here. Unlike some of the other dramas I've seen recently, there's usually something going on to cause a bit of activity in the rear channels, including the movie's score by Mike Post, crowded houses, restaurants and basketball games, and of course, the Poker House itself. Spanish subtitles are also included (no English).
The only real extra feature isn't even on the extras menu: to switch on the audio commentary by director Lori Petty, you'll have to hit the Set Up page instead. Somewhat disappointingly, Petty has considerably less to say about her movie on a thematic level than you might expect, given that it's based on her own life. I was expecting more of a serious tone with more discussion about what motivated her to turn her story into a movie, but she's surprisingly cheerful, even confessing that the experience felt more personal before she'd turned it into a movie. There are also frequent gaps of silence. The commentary certainly isn't unpleasant, but it just doesn't have as much to say as I'd hoped given the material. It's too bad David Alan Grier didn't participate in the commentary to liven things up (although, given his psychotically hyperactive appearances on Loveline and The Adam Carolla Show, perhaps someone was worried he'd liven things up a little too much).
The other two extras are a photo gallery (2:09) and the movie's original theatrical trailer (1:37). Automatic trailers for Paraiso Travel, Explicit Ills and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh play when you put in the DVD.
While I think there are viewers out there who will connect with The Poker House, I couldn't tell you who they were going to be, and the DVD has a slightly questionable transfer and a lack of deeply insightful special features. Anyone whose curiosity is piqued by the above write-up should rent it before deciding on a purchase.
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