Tag: lili reinhart

Hustlers


Hustlers (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Inspired by a true story of strippers who became so desperate to lead financially comfortable lives that they decided eventually it would be an excellent idea to drug their clients unconscious and cash in, it is astounding that “Hustlers,” written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, is not a more savagely effective film. The reason is because elements are there to make compelling statements about the current economic state of America; how women are still considered to be the lesser gender—certainly one to be objectified; and how true upward mobility remains to be a dream for most working class Americans. It is like an essay with some good ideas sprinkled about, but these points are not tied together to make a strong thesis.

The work is not approached like a true crime story. On the contrary, the majority of the picture is composed of the strippers-turned-criminals celebrating their disgusting misdeeds: popping yet another bottle of champaign, going on shopping sprees, moving into another NYC apartment that is fancier than the last. It is necessary to show these peaks so that viewers may have an appreciation of how far these characters have fallen later on, but the intention from behind the camera must be clear as day—that the subjects’ actions are wrong and therefore must pay for risking others’ lives. Instead, during these celebratory scenes, we get the impression we are supposed to party right alongside the subjects. I felt sickened by it.

And so I wondered if this was the writer-director’s intention. I was not at all convinced; I think that because our current culture demands that we celebrate women, especially solidarity among women, Scafaria lost focus on the type of story that is begging to be told. Instead of exploring the nature of the crime, perhaps even the complexity of it, the screenplay spends so much time on Destiny (Constance Wu), a new stripper in 2007 just before the financial crisis hit, wishing to be close friends—sisters, even—with veteran stripper Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez). Notice how the role of cops and detectives who have discovered the scam is so conveniently brushed under the rug. As a result, there is a lack of tension during the final act. Resolutions are cobbled together in a most awkward fashion. For instance, the scene of a former stripper being held at gunpoint provides no catharsis whatsoever.

Despite watchable performances by Wu and Lopez, the more compelling angle of the drama remains just underneath the topsoil, rarely touched upon. I grew tired of the constant fashion show and slow motion. Clearly, Scafaria knows how to capture her stars’ faces and make them look breathtakingly beautiful. But we are not simply looking at pages of a magazine. This is supposed to be a rough and ugly story of people who are so tired of scraping by, so tired of feeling cheated by the current system, that one day they decide to come together and bet their morals and their freedom to reap big rewards. In a way, an argument can be made that the correct way to approach the story is through the perspective of a compulsive gambler. Perhaps then it would have embodied a certain intoxicating, self-destructive energy.

There is a compelling story in “Hustlers,” perhaps even an insightful one, but it is buried so deep precisely because the writer-director has failed to show her subjects under a critical lens. There is a constant disconnect between the movie and the viewer. We get the impression that she wishes to protect these women, or some vague feminist idea, that she ends up preaching to the choir instead of telling a specific story without all the flowery half-measures. Halfway through, I wished another filmmaker—one who is seasoned at seeing through the fog—helmed the project.

Miss Stevens


Miss Stevens (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Lily Rabe has a face of an intriguing portrait, one that we can analyze for hours and extract a lot of meaning. In “Miss Stevens,” written by Julia Hart and Jordan Horowitz, she portrays a high school teacher with a deep sadness to her character. Right from the opening scene, viewers looking for a character worth studying are likely to be drawn to the performance. There is gloom in those eyes and yet there is a strength, too. Immediately we cannot help but ask ourselves whether Miss Stevens’ melancholy is due to a recent breakup, a death of a loved one, a bitter unhappiness in her chosen career path, or perhaps she is simply touched by the play she had just seen. The film unfolds in a most assured manner.

There is insight in the way all characters are written. Particularly impressive is in how Billy (Timothée Chalamet), Margot (Lili Reinhart), and Sam (Anthony Quintal) are realized as flesh and bone teenagers with real thoughts, complex feelings, and at times refreshing reactions to the challenges that face them. Although Miss Stevens is clearly the main protagonist, there are insight, intelligence, and intrigue to the people that surround her. The plot involves the teacher taking her students to an acting competition over one weekend. But a whole lot more is going on underneath despite a nondescript surface.

Especially brave—and refreshing—is the manner in which an underaged teenage crush toward an adult is handled. Certainly there is tinge of humor to it, but the material never lets go of the pain and longing when it comes unreciprocated feelings. Billy is attracted to Miss Stevens and the film dares to walk that fine line with elegance and grace rather than shying away from the topic completely or—worse—brushing it under the rug when it becomes too uncomfortable.

There is beauty in the way the student-teacher relationship is explored; we actually wonder how it would have been like for the both of them had Billy been ten years older or if Miss Stevens were a decade younger. Would they have connected so powerfully then or would they have missed that spark entirely? A fascinating case can be made that it would likely have been the latter. Chalamet commands a magnetic presence and he more than holds his own especially when Rabe is required to deliver during the more emotional scenes that depict her character’s inner turmoil.

“Miss Stevens,” directed by Julia Hart, is about juggling private and public spheres. The fact that our heroine is an educator is no accident. In a way, it is the perfect profession for this particular story. There is a scene in the film where two teachers discuss the complexity and simplicity of the job. That duality, whether it really is as complex or as simple as it seems, depends largely on two factors: perspective and approach. But that’s not all. Are we truly and entirely capable of separating our private and public lives when every day the two worlds mesh so thoroughly, especially in this day and age where it can be argued that classic definitions of public and private lives no longer apply?