“You find a way to afford the horse”
Writer/director Ami Canaan Mann‘s WIGS network three-part series Dakota has the potential to be an intriguing gender reversal for the subject of high stakes poker. One generally thinks Rounders, The Sting, House of Games or many other male-centric vehicles when it comes to players putting it all on the line for a quick score in the best of times and a reprieve from a loan shark’s brutality in the worst. Poker films use women as distractions, schemers, and accomplices. So, listening to Jena Malone‘s titular character chide herself for being four hundred bucks in the hole after falsely reading her opponents is a welcome change to the cliché.
I’m not so sure Mann went for broke with the premise, though. Rather than rip the barriers down and make Malone as inconsiderate to her loved ones or juiced like a junkie needing a fix as the many gambling men we’ve seen come and go on the big screen, she is still very much a pragmatic woman. Dealing with the intrinsic issues being a single mother brings should increase the stakes, not remove them altogether. Watching Dakota put aside money for a babysitter, gas, and groceries shows way too much responsibility for the type of person this genre portrays. As a result the day’s events prove merely recreational instead of becoming the salvation from getting herself violently injured or killed and ruining her son’s life in the process.
There are some heavy-handed quips from the likes of David Heckel‘s game adversary on what turns out to be the young woman’s last hand, wondering aloud about how “women don’t take risks”. What should be a very telling line towards the resulting chain of events fails due to our knowledge of her presence of mind to squirrel away dough for the essentials. She’s paid her bills already; her stage of ‘broke’ isn’t quite where it should be to make putting it all on the line relevant. Yes, threats allude to her having to prostitute herself in order to afford the five large buy-in at host Berringer’s (Jason O’Mara) house, but we never feel it will come to that before her tale is complete.
Malone plays the role with an authentic anxiousness, beating herself up with cigarettes and the impatience of a sitter already working way past their agreed time. She has the stone-face necessary to bluff and utilizes her fellow players’ feminine preconceptions against them. A lot of the fun actually comes from how guys like Zak Penn (the Marvel screenwriter in a rare acting role), Billy Macy, and O’Mara react to having a girl at the table in the first place. And when her son Kyle (Emmett Heckel) joins the fray, their opinion of her gets even lower to give her the very edge necessary to risk meeting her bankroller George (Michael Massee) without the spoils victory.
Having escorts Onahoua Rodriguez and Jacqueline Pinol give Dakota advice on taking down ‘every last one of them’—as in men—is insanely contrived and shows the overall scope possesses too much ‘girl power’ to make it universally appealing. Making all but the oldest man at the table see her as prey to take advantage of only pushes the film further into farce. If you’re going to put a woman in these circumstances you should make the rules as vicious and cruel as with the men. Don’t let having a child be her secret weapon; don’t let a room full of emasculated boys refuse to make her turn over her cards. A nicely polished production with effective acting, the whole is sadly nothing more than a cop-out.