The Poker House



Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival.

Lori Petty, a likable actress in such films as “A League of Their Own” and “Point Break,” makes her directorial debut with a very personal story about her harrowing childhood living with a drug-addicted mother. While the film has strong moments and performances, it illustrates the dangers of overly personal filmmaking. Petty's passion for the subject is unmistakable; what's missing is the clarity that a true artist would provide. Few viewers will want to subject themselves to the seamy slice-of-life depicted in this memoir.

    This lack of clarity is evident first of all in a very unkempt structure. Petty thrusts us right into the dangerous life of Agnes (Jennifer Lawrence) and her two younger sisters. While a brief flashback sequence, done in the style of grainy home movies, is designed to explain how Agnes's family was ripped apart, it doesn't really accomplish that feat. We spend a long time trying to comprehend the dynamics within the drug house where Agnes struggles to survive. The verbose voice-over narration doesn't help. Too many story points remain murky. When Agnes appears for a basketball game at the movie's finale, it comes as something of a shock because we had no idea she was even attending school.

    Lawrence has a touching poise on camera that conveys the resilience of children. Sophia Bairley and Chloe Grace Moretz as her sisters also perform admirably. The surprise of the movie is Selma Blair, who gives a stark, uncompromising performance as Agnes's mother that may be the best of her career. On the other hand, David Alan Grier-who also co-authored the screenplay with Petty-delivers a showy, bewildering turn as an eccentric barroom drunk.

    Those who survived abusive childhoods may feel a strong connection to the material. Other moviegoers will applaud Petty's intentions but feel alienated from the squalid, chaotic universe presented here. The editing by Tirsa Hackshaw doesn't help us to get our bearings. Mike Post's haunting score is an asset.

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Bokeem Woodbine, Selma Blair, Sophia Bairley, Chloe Grace Moretz, David Alan Grier. Director: Lori Petty. Screenwriters: Lori Petty, David Alan Grier. Producers: Stephen J. Cannell, Michael J. Dubelko. Director of photography: Ken Seng. Production designer: Lisa S. Wolff-Mandziara. Music: Mike Post. Costume designer: Erin Benach. Editor: Tirsa Hackshaw. Sales agent: The Film Sales Company.

No MPAA rating, 93 minutes.