In my first full week of “Funemployment,” my movie watching rate has increased over and above an already avid pace. After enjoying Jennifer Lawrence’s recent performance in the Silver Lining’s Playbook, I wanted to check out one of her earlier films and one that my father recommended. He did warn me that the movie, ‘The Poker House,’ (2008), was much grittier and more similar to the 2010 adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel “Winter’s Bone,” (also starring Lawrence).
Lawrence plays the difficult female lead Agnes, the eldest sister of three girls in a dysfunctional family torn apart by physical abuse, poverty, and drugs. They live in small Iowa town circa 1976, in what is locally referred to as “The Poker House,” which serves a combination of purposes- underground casino, a brothel, drug den, and also unfortunately, the home where three girls, the oldest being only 14, must attempt to lay their heads at night.
Agnes’ mother, played wonderfully by Selma Blair, we learn wasn’t always as pitifully worthless as a mother. Her husband, a preacher, and the father of her three young girls, had a tendency toward violence and anger. Sadly, he often took this out in the form of physical abuse upon the rest of his family. In what would hopefully be an improvement, social services removes the girls from his care and they are never to see him again. Within short order, Blair falls victim to the luring appeal of alcohol and harder drugs, eventually feeding her addictions by turning tricks and allowing her pimp to take over her home in order to conduct his ruthless and gritty business.
Miraculously, Lawrence manages to fill the role of mother to her two younger sisters, caretaker to her drug-addicted mother,a straight-A student, the hard working part-time employee of the local newspaper, and the star of her high school basketball team.
Given that I had prepared myself for the intense story to come and the stage set for disaster early in the film, I was on edge from the start, waiting to see what tragedy would befall these already disadvantaged girls next.
First I worried that the father of one daughter’s best friend, at who’s house she spent much of time, usually until she was kicked out by the girl’s mother who had six children of her own to care for, would turn out less gentle than he appeared. Interestingly, when his kind gesture of taking her to breakfast, albeit at a bar, which struck me as a terrible place to bring and eventually leave behind a young girl, turned out to be a much healthier environment for her to spend the day. Whereas instead, the middle sister, who after waking early on a cold day when she didn’t even have school (because of some “jewish people’s holiday”) must first deliver papers and then to go wait in line for a few dollars made by returning empty liquor bottles along with the town’s local bums (who appear to be two of her only friends). She then must return home only to barricade herself in her room in an attempt to practice her saxophone and get some rest while one of the typical “poker parties,” begins to surge just outside her door.
Despite her constant proximity to her mother’s multitude of vices and seedy associates, Agnes manages to remain mostly free from these dangerous influences. However, the she does give in to a bizarre relationship with Duval, her mother’s pimp. In narrating her poetry, Lawrence describes how she likes to give in to him and his seemingly innocent kisses, enjoying the soft and gentle feel of his lips. However, she deludes herself into thinking this man can actually love her, while ignoring the fact that he is the same man who pimps out and beats her mother, often right in front of her. In the same way she wears the many hats of the roles she needs to fill, she maintains multiple distinct views of who this man really is.
The film takes place mostly in the span of one day (an unintentional theme of many of my recent flicks), the day of Agnes’ semi-final game in the state basketball tournament, which she describes as the biggest game of her career to date. As the day goes on and Agnes must juggle waking, feeding, and caring for both of her sisters AND her mother, stealing household necessities such as toilet paper from the local convenience store, gracing the local court for pickup with some younger boys from town, doing homework, and dropping her freelance poetry off at the newspaper, one begins to wonder whether she’ll even make it to the game.
This worry really takes shape when Agnes returns home to a full-blown “poker party.” Again, she puts the well-being of her sister ahead of her own, planning somewhere safer for her to go spend the evening. With all of your heart you wish she’d just leave the house as well and head to the gym to warm up. Instead, you cringe as she removes her sister’s barricade and wanders out into the party among the drunks, whores, pimps, and card players.
When Duval sees her, she tells him that she can’t stay because of the duties she has both to her team and coach and one still hopes that she’ll escape, despite the fact that she has already started smoking her second joint of the day. She gives in to his kisses once again, however, we see that even he senses the inappropriateness of making out with the 14-year old daughter of his hooker, as he pulls away when someone else walks by. However, when Duval returns to the party and Agnes sees him simultaneously kissing her mother and planning the next john to pimp her out to, things go from bad to worse. Agnes struggles to deal with this difficult scene and grabs the nearest pint of liquor she can find and begins drinking.
*** (DISTURBING) SPOILER ALERT **
After a quick scare caused by police sirens heard outside, the scene jumps to the disturbing moment I had been anxiously waiting for, but one I never expected. We see Duval and Agnes lying together on the floor in her bedroom in a moment that quickly turns from gentle to disgusting and violent as the much older, stronger, and larger man rapes the 14-year-old child.
Agnes is overwhelmed with worries, the most pressing of which is that she may now be carrying the child of her mother’s pimp. In a desperate attempt to cleanse herself, she gets into a bath still wearing her oversized T-shirt. At this point, her mother comes in, having no idea what has transpired and ignores the sight of her child crying in the tub. Agnes reaches out to her mother, in the way a child who has defiantly presented herself as strong and independent, honestly screaming for the comfort only a mother could provide after such a horrific trauma. This may be the first moment in the entire film where viewers actually see Agnes for the 14-year old girl, vulernable, and immature as she is (and should be at her age). Her mother, fucked up beyond belief, is incapable of providing any solace and instead recounts some tale of how tired she used to grow of the constant requests from her daughter to read to her.
At this point, most viewers won’t remember that just a few short scenes ago they were pulling for Lawrence to still make it to her game, let alone that she would even be able to still play in her current post-traumatic state. However, she defies every doubt and steals a car from the poker house, changes into her uniform in the parking lot and shows up in time, albeit late, to still take the court. Her coaches anger at her tardiness quickly subsides when she begins to take over the game within her first possession. She scores some unprecedented number of points in the few minutes she has left to play, and gets her team within one basket of a win. As you would expect, she gets the opportunity to take the game-winning shot, and in a brief respite from the utter defeatism that has surrounded the rest of the movie, she makes it, landing a huge victory for her team and her town, all of whom rely on her almost as much as her dysfunctional family.
This hard to imagine comeback carries over nicely into a pleasant, even if certainly and utterly fleeting, feeling when she finds her two sisters hanging out by a bridge. The three of them then go off together to celebrate the victory, both in the game and in their constant struggle for survival against unimaginable odds, as they sing Marvin Gaye’s “Aint no mountain high enough,” in a display of the bond only sisters who have gone through trials such as these three could know.
Even though I noticed the “Based on a true story” tag when the film opened, I thought little of it throughout the emotional rollercoaster of a tale. However, I was that much more floored to learn that the film’s writer and director, Lori Petty, based the story on her own traumatic experiences as a young girl growing up in a the real life “Poker House.”