Lori Petty, a Venice local,  has conquered the silver screen with her indelible performances like Kit Keller in “A League of Their Own” or Tank Girl in, well, “Tank Girl.”  She dazzled on the small screen as well producing and starring in the tv hit “Lush Life” on Fox and made her mark on Broadway back in the 90’s.  An accomplished painter, in March 2008 she had a solo exhibit of her work at the Deborah Page Gallery in Santa Monica in follow-up to her earlier one-woman show at 72 Market Street in Venice and has been a regularly featured artist on the Venice Art Walk. So, it seems only natural that sooner or later directing would be her next step.  In 2008, Petty also wowed audiences at Los Angeles Film Festival  with not only her skills as a writer and director, but with her heartfelt honesty and emotion, telling one small chapter from her own life story, with THE POKER HOUSE.

Agnes, Cammie and Bee are an incredible group of siblings.  Each strongly independent individuals, together they form a cohesive loving unit under some extraordinarily difficult circumstances.  Their mother is a prostitute with pimp in tow and works out of their house, The Poker House.  One of her co-workers lives and works out of an apartment over the garage out back.  And mom’s pimp serves as a surrogate father replacing the girls’ holy roller, Bible thumping, child beating father who hasn’t been seen in years. 

From the opening frame, we see Agnes, strong, confident and caring but also wanting to be more grown-up than her 14 years.   She takes charge of a situation, and matter-of-factly gets her kid sisters out of bed in the morning, makes breakfast (albeit macaroni and cheese made with, as her younger sister Bee puts it, “orange water” from crushed Nacho Doritos), helps Bee prepare for a paper route, collects money from her mom’s pimp, earns money doing laundry from their renter, works a part-time job and still manages to sit down and do advanced algebra.  She also tries to deal with their mother Sarah who is strung out on drugs and alcohol and worries more about getting Agnes “into the business” than seeing her get a formal education.   Bee has an infectious exuberant pragmatacism that seems to shelter her own insecurities about her life.  To help make ends meet, she has an early morning paper route and as she empties her newspaper bag with papers, refills it along her route with empty bottles that she turns in for cash at the local corner store.   Cammie is a pure delight.  An impish bundle of energy who spends as much time as she can with the neighbors and their kids, seeking out a normal family life, as is more than telling with her bond with Clyde, whom she wishes was her father.  But despite the outward normalcy of the daily routine organized by Agnes and the joy in each of these girls, their lives are anything but normal.   What 14 year old has to assume the household responsibilities?  What children live in “a poker house”?  What children grow up with pimps, prostitutes and the homeless as their friends and confidantes?  And what children grow up under these conditions and then survive and thrive as adults, but still recall their youth with a very apparent glowing affection?  Agnes, Bee and Cammie, that’s who.

The character of Agnes is based on Lori Petty and Jennifer Lawrence tackles the role with as much human force and energy as Petty lives her own life.  As Agnes, she is engaging, inviting, strong and loving but at her core, there is still a childlike essence that Lawrence beautifully conveys on screen.  She commands every scene, even when silent.  Off screen, Lawrence’s vibrancy, free-spirited honesty and love of life is more than evident, making it easy to see how Petty came to cast her as Agnes.  Interestingly, as she self-describes it, Lawrence “sucks at basketball”, but despite this, Petty, who played ball in school, managed to show her a few moves.  But in a scene involving the “big game”, while it may be Lawrence huffing and puffing and sprinting up and down the court, a double was used for the actual shooting of baskets and mechanics of the sport.

Sophia Bairley is a delight as Bee.  There is a radiance about her that lights up the screen.  Her confident delivery speaks volumes about her character and about her talent. And then there’s Chloe Moretz.   A total and complete joy, she steals your heart from her opening scene.  The girls’ chemistry is undeniable and within the first few seconds of each of them appearing in a scene together, you truly believe they are sisters.  Given the depth of their talents here, I know it won’t be long before I am writing about each of them again.  In fact, look for Moretz in the upcoming “500 Day of Summer” where she is just as unforgettable and adorable as in THE POKER HOUSE. 

But the real talent here is Selma Blair as Sarah.  Unlike anything we have seen from Blair before, she is mesmerizing as Sarah.  Disheveled and drunk, at first blush, she is unrecognizable.   According to Blair, “I liked that make-up.  It’s makes my job so much easier to play someone like those scenes looking in the mirror.  I can’t even see myself so it helps to not look like yourself when you’re playing a character that won’t look at themselves.  So [the make-up] made it blissfully easy. I like whenever you can have the help of something that can be a little bit bigger than the average character.”   Blair worked very closely with Petty throughout the process.  “I felt right on with it from the start.  She would tell me if there was something she wanted more.”  Importantly, Blair did not meet Petty’s mother, on whom Sarah is based, prior to shooting.  “I think it might have [altered my performance]  because she’s a very different woman now.  She’s a successful business woman.  She supports Lori in every way.  I didn’t want to smarten her up.  I’m afraid if I would have seen her in that way, I would have added elements.  No, [my character] is a woman that’s broken and messed up right now.  Let’s just show it.  It doesn’t have to be sugar-coated. She is THE worst mom.”   Selma Blair is true talent.  This performance  is her Oscar gold.

Written by Petty along with longtime friend, David Alan Grier, THE POKER HOUSE is based on Petty’s own true life stories.  As she puts it, “The stories are 100% true.  The names are changed to protect the guilty.”  The characters are full-bodied and richly toned with intricate nuances that provide a rough-hewed loving finish to each portrait.  The strength with which each is written can only come from personal experience.  But what I find most refreshing is that where Petty could have taken a very maudlin, negative tone with the script given some of the dramatic elements (which I will not reveal), she doesn’t.  There is a lightness and hope that permeates the story and each of the girls.  One of the key scenes giving the film such light is one involving the three girls singing their hearts out to Marvin Gaye while cruising through town to Howard Johnson’s for dinner (despite Lawrence admitting to “being the world’s worst singer).   A paycheck, a basketball win and surviving yet another day……in a small town in Indiana there’s no better way to celebrate.  That one scene with bring a tear to your eye and put a smile on your heart.

According to Blair, “anyone that is going to pour their heart out in such a poetic and honest way without fear and without apology and without judgment” warrants attention.  It’s why she jumped at the role of Sarah.  

As a director, Petty is methodical and precise.  Her camera angles are varied and interesting.  Her voice is strong in each scene and not just from a story perspective, but from her visual perspective.  I continually sense that Petty was reliving these moments but in a voyeuristic fashion as she blocked and shot each scene. Tirsa Hackshaw’s editing only adds to the tapestry of Petty’s story while Director of Photography Ken Seng uses light, shadow and denaturation to its best effect. 

Given the darker tone of the material presented, one might think the shooting set had a somber tone.  Nope.  While an efficient shoot, there was still time for humor and comaraderie amongst the cast, including Lawrence’s constant references to Petty as “the AFLAC duck” given Petty’s way of calling for “Action”, not to mention the all in pick-up basketball games that seemed to take place whenever there were men and balls, er, basketballs, on set, which of course resulted in the boys on the crew trying to one up Petty, a fine athlete who actually had a basketball scholarship.

Given the personal nature of THE POKER HOUSE and the experience of playing Petty in her story, this , I asked Jennifer Lawrence what she believed was the most valuable thing she has learned from Petty.  Giving the question some thought, the first thing that came to her mind was a quote from Petty – “Things can happen to you but they don’t have to happen to your soul.  Petty is never going to lose a minute of sleep at night because everyone knows how she feels about everything.

When Petty and I talked last year about the film, she was nervous and filled with trepidation about the film’s debut and whether it would find an audience or distribution.  Now that the film is hitting the big screen in Los Angeles this week, I had to ask Petty how it feels to finally have that deal in place with the film opening to the public this week and then making its way onto DVD. “ Well, I got one [distribution], but I always want more.  I’m opening in one theater [in Santa Monica] and I want more.”   I have no doubt that her next film will see the “more” that she seeks.

For Petty, she would like the audience to “feel the empathy and compassion that everyone has for each other in this film.  And to forgive people that are really doing the best that they can.  You don’t know what some’s going through.  You don’t know where they’ve been.  You don’t know what happens when they go home.  Treat everybody the way you would like to be treated and be thankful just to be alive.  Don’t be afraid and don’t let the past affect your present.”  Lori Petty, we are all thankful for you and for THE POKER HOUSE.

Agnes – Jennifer Lawrence

Sarah – Selma Blair

Bee – Sophia Bairley

Cammie – Chloe Moretz

Directed by Lori Petty.  Written by Lori Petty and David Alan Grier.

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