Women are taking 2019 by storm, both behind and in front of the camera. Aquakwina expanded her dramatic range in Lulu Wang’s The Farewell; Kaitlyn Denver and Beanie Feldstein busted their comedic chops in Olivia Smart’s Booksmart; now, Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers brings a female ensemble that takes the reins in destroying the patriarchy.
Hustlers is a loosely-fictionalized film based on the New York magazine article about a group of women who decide to take on Wall Street. It opens in 2007 with Destiny (Constance Wu) on her second day of a new stripping gig. She’s naive and nervous, a lion cub in a den full of lionesses. Then, the lights dim, and the men turn their attention towards the stage. The queen of the jungle has arrived, and all eyes are on her. Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) seduces the audience with her entrancingly acrobatic routines which display immense physical control with sensual dancing that would make anyone blush. Ramona takes Destiny under her wing and teaches her the ways to make men cough up the money.
It’s all fun and games, until the 2008 recession hits, leaving Destiny out of a job and unable to score anything in retail. Years later, she and Ramona reunite with a new idea: making Wall Street pay for what they took from them. They, along with two new recruits (Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart) concoct an elaborate scheme to drug businessmen and max out their credit card.
Hustlers’ strongest aspect is its stunning ensemble. Scafaria uses these four actresses to the best of their abilities, and when they’re together, we never want them to part. Scafaria’s deliberate focus on female relationships allow genuine bonds to form so that when the fall inevitably happens, the void that this friendship left behind is felt. The plot is formulaic itself, able to soar only when the women are ricocheting off of each other. Wu feels like a supporting character in her own movie, and the film stumbles when it chooses to focus only on her.
The woman of the hour is Lopez, who commands the film, drawing the eyes of the characters in the film and the audience watching instantly to her. Every step is a strut, and the sidewalk is her runway. Ramona is powerful and, as Destiny puts it, “always in control.” She can create and command the game at the same time, as well as be a maternal figure for these women who have lost everything. In case you have missed Lopez in Selena or Out of Sight, Hustlers proves to the audience that she is more than just “Jenny from the Block.”
In the hands of the wrong (or male) director, Hustlers could have turned gratuitous and exploitative. However, Scafaria handles it with a dynamic female gaze that seeks to celebrate women’s bodies instead of sexualizing them. Whenever the women are dancing on stage, Scafaria studies their faces and the emotions they are feeling in the moment, humanizing them rather than just making them blatant sex objects.
Hustlers feels what an authentic “girl power” film should be: a film focusing on the dynamic between women. Lopez, Wu, and the rest of the gang aren’t mere accomplices; they are a family—a family with money. You can’t get a better love story in 2019.