There have been some notable exceptions over the years such as Afternoon Delight (Jill Soloway) and the documentary Live Girls Unite! (Vicky Funari and Julia Query), but overwhelming female exotic dancers have appeared in movies directed by men as little more than background, sleazy scene setters, to provide some nudity, and largely remained voiceless. We’ve rarely learnt much about their lives away from the pole, though the male directed Showgirls, Striptease, Dancing at the Blue Iguana and Exotica did put their dancer characters squarely in the foreground.
So even before the opening credits rolled for Hustlers which world premiered at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival tonight, it was refreshing to know that it is written and directed by a woman, Lorene Scafaria (The Meddler, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World), adapted from source material written by a woman, Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York magazine article The Hustlers at Scores, with a lead cast made up of women.
As the film opens Scarfaria immediately takes us backstage at the strip club and lets us eavesdrop on the dancers before they go out to work, an indication that this is going to be a film from the perspective of the women themselves, not the club patrons, as the POV has so often been in strip club set TV and movie scenes. Scarfaria uses the dressing room ensemble setting to depict a strong sense of sisterhood among the women, they talk freely and frankly among themselves about not being interested in sex when they get home to their partners having spent all night working with their aroused clientele, or preferring to use a sex toy instead. Their offstage personas contrasting with the fantasy that they present when dancing or up close and personal in the private rooms of the club.
We follow one of the dancers home, Destiny (Constance Wu), who’s nocturnal existence sees her set her daily alarm clock for 3pm. She heads back out to the strip club telling her grandma whom she lives with that she’s working the night shift at a diner. Determined to pay off the mortgage on her grandmother’s house, Destiny is frustrated by the large cut of her takings that goes to the club management, as well as payoffs to the VIP area’s security and various other club staff. Cue Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) a high earner at the club who is not only the best dancer but has also learned to work the system. The mother of a young girl, she’s an ambitious parttime student with plans to launch her own denim swimwear line. She takes Destiny into the warmth of her ample genuine fur coat and in an effort to help her increase her earning power serves as a kind of strip club Yoda, teaching Destiny how to work the pole in a pair of vertiginous pleasers (the name for the heels worn by pole dancers). Although Lopez certainly looks stunning in the sequence, Scafaria’s focus is clearly more on celebrating the strength, and even beauty and grace of the artform of seductive pole dancing, set to a Chopin soundtrack, than merely seducing the audience. Unlike so many other filmic pole dance sequences, it serves as integral to the plot and character development and is a vital part of the relationship building between these two characters. It’s also a lot of fun. We’re also seeing the scene through the admiring, perhaps nostalgic eyes of the film’s narrator, Destiny.
Scarfaria’s skillfully constructed screenplay takes us back and forth between the unfolding action and an extended interview with Destiny looking back on events conducted by a journalist, Elizabeth, played by Julia Stiles. Elizabeth occasionally interrupts the narrative flow to question if that’s the way things really happened, Destiny replies at one point, “you don’t have to believe me, I’m used to people not believing me”.
It’s a narrative structure that allows for some heightened, glossy and frequently hugely entertaining scenes of the girls working at the club and spending time with each other outside it, when “everything was glamorous and cool” as Destiny describes it, without sacrificing the film’s established sense of believability, or losing the audience’s investment in the characters.
As part of Destiny’s “stripper bootcamp”, Diamond played by Cardi B, demonstrates the art of the lapdance, advising her to “work the clock not the cock” to earn the most from each client. Cardi B, as you might expect if you’ve ever seen her in an interview or in one of her music videos, really owns the screen and makes an indelible mark on the film, a supporting role that leaves you wanting more. Similarly Lizzo isn’t in the film much, but makes an impact when she does appear, and adds to the sense of fun in the backstage scenes, even getting in some flute playing. Both Lizzo and Cardi B’s performances have a natural quality to them that feels improvised but wasn’t according to Scafaria. Cardi B along with trans actress Trace Lysette both have experience of working in strip clubs, with Lysette having worked at Scores itself at the time when the film is set, adding to the film’s authenticity, while the film’s club scenes were mainly shot in a real club, New York’s Show Palace.
With Ramona and Diamond’s guidance Destiny begins to hand her grandmother increasingly large wads of cash, but when the 2008 financial crash arrives it hits the club and the women’s earning potential hard. Ramona observes that “there are no consequences” for what the men of Wall Street did to create the economic crisis, justification enough for her to put together a team of women including Destiny, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) to carefully target men at upscale bars, take them to the strip club and max out their credits cards. Taking control from both the clientele and the club management.
The central relationship between Destiny and Ramona is a captivatingly ambiguous one. There’s a sisterly bond between them, but a fragile sense of trust. Constance Wu brings an absorbing combination of naiveté and hardness to Destiny, while Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona has a maternal warmth, convincing us she has the chrasma needed to recruit the women, as well as the business acumen, there’s also an intriguing sense that we’re only getting to see some of the character’s layers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see both in the running for Golden Globes come the 2020 award season.
With steady pacing, Scarfaria takes the time for us to get to know the characters without judging them, she leaves the audience to make up their own minds about the moral aspect of what the women were doing, but clearly we get to know them much better than any of the male characters they take from. Unsurprisingly, many of the men who the women stole from in real life were reluctant to report what had happened to the police as they didn’t want to admit, that however brilliant they might be in the board room, they’d been taken advantage of by strippers.
The film’s soundtrack which aside from the aforementioned Chopin tracks, mostly features period hits from the mid to late aughts including tracks by Britney, Rhianna, Janet Jackson, Usher contributes to the film’s buoyant sense of fun. As the end credits roll, we see the four lead characters dancing in the comfort of Ramona’s home – no one is watching them, they’re dancing for themselves. Ultimately Scafaria has delivered an empowering, uplifting movie with far more depth than you might expect from watching the trailer. There are so many other fascinating true stories out there with women at their centre ripe for film adaptations, let’s hope Hustlers encourages the studios to make it rain on filmmakers and give them the dollar bills they need to put those stories on screen.
By James Kleinmann
Hustlers premiered Saturday 7th September at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival, and screens again at TIFF on Sunday 8th September at 6pm. It goes on general release on Friday 13th September.