Retrospective: The Poker House (2008)

Early movies from stars are often very revealing and The Poker House is particularly interesting as it’s basically a misery memoir made into a movie. Co-written and directed by Lori Petty, it’s based on her truly dreadful experience growing up in a rough part of Iowa. It gave major roles to two actresses who have since gone on to big things; Jennifer Lawrence as Agnes and Chloë Grace Moretz as Cammie and you can see why they became such stars.

Jennifer Lawrence’s character offers an internal monologue of her truly horrific family upbringing. She has a drugged up prostitute mother (Selma Blair), whilst growing up in the most notorious place in town. Their home was known as the ‘poker house’, which is part brothel and part gambling den where she attempts to gain an education and look after her two younger sisters who she tries to keep as far away from the prostitution and drugs within their house as possible, whilst playing for the basketball team and trying to stay sane and safe. This being a ‘day in the life’ movie, you know that’s not going to happen. Lawrence shows the model of character she’ll go on to be known for. She ends up being typecast for similar roles in Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games, playing poor, unlucky sods who suffer huge amounts of trauma in each.

What is by far the most significant scene in the movie is when she is raped by the pimp who runs her mother. Any rape is harrowing but it’s the rape of a minor, aged just fourteen and it occurs after they have been kissing and joking around which makes it all the horrifying when the tone changes. It’s all narrated with her internal dialogue and she mentions how much she likes him. This scene is made worse by the brutal treatment from her mother when she informs her that she has been raped. In a drunkenly slur, her mother tells her eldest daughter that she was too smart and imitates her cruely. She then decides with the pimp that she will prostitute her daughter and then the understandably upset daughter waves a gun at them both and her mother chooses her pimp over her own daughter.

Both the younger daughters seem remarkably well adjusted considering the circumstances. Cammie (Chloë Grace Moretz) has adopted herself with a low end gangster whilst the other daughter (Sophi Bairley as Bee) does odd jobs. Bee’s character is particularly sweet as she shows true childish naivety about the various horrors in their life.

The movie has (to put it mildly) a very mixed soundtrack and it is probably its weakest area. It’s got what I consider TV movie music, which is mainly crap but it’s also got a load of Motown which is brilliant and adds a lot to the 1970s vibe.

The Poker House is the perfect retrospective movie as it’s got lots which make it worth another look. It’s got stars like the wonderfully self-assured Jennifer Lawrence who goes through hell and bottle and it has an interesting ending which at least gives a positive end to an hour and a half of misery. It can in many ways be seen as an American Ken Loech movie. It’s an American version of the English ‘kitchen sink’ drama and it is well worth your time if you can track down a copy as it is exceptionally well acted and a nice simple drama supposedly based on a true story.

Retrospective by Harry Riedl



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