I’m not sure what town The Poker House is set in, but it’s small enough that children can be allowed to sit at the bar for hours while their parents are out, poor children and the homeless can chat for hours waiting for the bottle depot to open, and everyone knows exactly what the “Poker House” is. We’re not sure before the film begins, but we know very well by the time it concludes, as we’ve spent 90 minutes there. Imagine spending your entire life in this awful location.
Some of you reading this will no doubt have lived in a similar locale for parts of your lives, and if that’s the case, The Poker House will really connect with you. This is a film that feels very real, largely because of the talent behind its creation. While it may be spoiling to say this, I feel it’s important anyway: The writer/director of this film, Lori Petty, is basing this film on her life. She lived through this, and she recreates it with passion and enthusiasm, trying to keep it as realistic as possible. The film tells us right at the beginning that it’s based on a true story, but it’s only at the end that we learn the whole truth.
I’m not sure if it’s best to keep this hidden. Maybe it makes the film hit harder right when it ends, but I don’t think that’s the case. I knew going in that this was a semi-autobiographical film, and the entire thing still hit me hard. It doesn’t exactly matter that the film is a personal project that the filmmaker needed to get made, but it is worth noting just because of how real it feels, how many small details were thrown in, and how emotional is can make you if you either have experienced this kind of situation or can easily empathize with it.
The lead is given to Jennifer Lawrence, playing Agnes, a 14-year-old girl living in a dysfunctional household. “Dysfunctional” is putting it mildly. She wakes up early every morning, makes sure all of the overnight guests leave (and fears for her life every time she does so), cleans up, and then wakes her two younger sisters (played by Sophia Bairley and Chloë Grace Moretz) ever so quietly. She makes them breakfast with whatever food is left in the house (usually not much), and on a normal day will send them off to school. It’s implied that she works part-time at two different jobs, and is done with school. We’re not sure, as The Poker House takes place over the course of one day, which happens to be a day off for everyone.
What of the girls’ parents? Their mother, Sarah (Selma Blair), is a prostitute hooked on alcohol and crack, while the father hasn’t been seen from in years after an unfortunate incident in which he had a “meltdown.” Yes, I think that’s the best way to describe it. Essentially, Agnes is raising the two kids, paying all of the bills, and just hoping that her mother or any of the guests who come to this house to party won’t kill her. As she repeats a few times over the course of the film: “Anything can happen, and anything does.” She lives it day by day, so it’s only fitting that The Poker House takes place over that single day.
Perhaps this exact day never happened in real life. I have a hard time believing that it could, simply because it was so packed. But condensing a great amount of events into one day helps us see things from the protagonist’s perspective, allowing us to feel overwhelmed by the world, while only eating up a small chunk of time. Truthfully, this film could have been three hours long and I wouldn’t have minded, but then, you can say that about most really good films.
It’s fair to say that there’s too much going on in this film, and that there’s not a lot of continuity between scenes. We go from one scene to the next, rarely aware of why. There’s not exactly a whole lot of cause-and-effect here — just a lot of effect. We know why the characters act the way they do, and we understand why a scene is required after it happens, but when it starts, we’re sometimes left a little confused. I’d like to think that a longer version of The Poker House exists somewhere out there, but since this is what we get, it has to be noted that it’s not edited together with the most care, even if it was shot meticulously.
This is not a happy film. If you go in hoping for a joyful and pleasant experience, make the decision right now to avoid it. You won’t come away from this film smiling, even if the ending isn’t one without hope. The film puts you in the perspective of Agnes, and makes you feel all of her pain, her disappointment, her resentment toward everything. And yet, she smiles and feels hope, which makes her situation all the more devastating. The performance turned in by Lawrence is great, and it has to be given that almost all of the emotional weight rests on her character. But she pulls it off, and is one of the two main reasons that the movie ultimately works as well as it does.
The Poker House is a film that takes the wost situations that one can face at the age of fourteen and compresses them all into one day. Is it necessarily believable that all of this can happen in a single day? No, but it doesn’t matter. You forget the implausibility and become emotionally invested in the lead character and her problems with the world. This film will hit home for people who experienced something like this, or can empathize with the situation for whatever reason. Personally, I think you should watch Petty’s passion project the next chance you get. It’s that good.