HUSTLERS. Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart. Directed by Lorene Scafaria. 110 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong sexual references, coarse language and nudity).

‘Hustlers’ injects the “ordinary people breaking bad” crime subgenre with a double shot of humour and feminine friendship, resulting in an entertaining film made with an oft-surprising level of nuance and skill (I say “surprising” because of its pulpy, dare I say trashy, subject matter). There’s already Oscar buzz surrounding Jennifer Lopez’s magnificent supporting turn as the leader of a group of New York City-based strippers that began drugging and fleecing their clientele in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, but writer-director Lorene Scafaria (as well as her editor Kayla Emter) are equally deserving of acclaim. If you can handle the seedier elements rife throughout the narrative, then this is a winning film that earns its crowd-pleasing highs and lows.

Despite her new job at well-known NYC strip club Moves, Destiny (Constance Wu) finds herself still struggling to support herself and her Nana (Wai Ching Ho). Although she finishes most nights with a wad of bills, the cuts taken by the club and various key staff leave her with a paltry take home sum. Then, Destiny is taken under the wing of Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a legendary and glamorous figure in the club’s line-up of dancers. Ramona teaches Destiny her tricks of the trade, and the pair are soon raking in cash together. That is, until September 2008 rolls around.

In the wake of the GFC, strip club patrons are far and few in between. After mothering a daughter and an unsuccessful attempt at earning a living outside of stripping, Destiny returns to Moves a couple of years later, where she finds Ramona running a new racket. With her charming new proteges Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), Ramona goes “fishing” for wealthy men in bars, eventually bringing them to Moves when they’re drunk enough to not notice their bank cards being skimmed. Ramona cuts Destiny into her scheme, and it isn’t long before the group steps up their operation, hiring other attractive young women to lure in their targets and even spiking the drinks of their hapless marks with a cocktail of MDMA and ketamine to make them forgetful and more suggestible. Although they soon find themselves flush with cash once more, it isn’t long before the authorities get wind of their operation.

At the heart of ‘Hustlers’ is the relationship between Destiny and Ramona. Based on an investigative article by Jessica Pressler, Scafaria’s adept screenplay uses a wraparound narrative about a journalist (Julia Stiles) interviewing Destiny some years after the events portrayed to tell the story via flashbacks. This structure allows Scafaria to tease out the subtleties of their half-maternal, half-sororal bond, particularly how it was corrupted by the growing criminality of their quasi-family. While Constance Wu is solid in the lead, it’s Jennifer Lopez’s movie from the moment she appears on screen (introduced through an impressively athletic dance routine) to the final frames. Lopez glows, almost literally, with a confidence and presence that could be compared to Matthew McConaughey’s charismatic turn in ‘Magic Mike’ but dialled up to 11. In Lopez’s hands, Ramona is both deeply maternal and fiercely independent, igniting the film with the sheer force of her charisma. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime perfect role for the romcom stalwart-cum-pop superstar, something the actress clearly recognised (she also produced the film through her Nuyorican Productions banner).

Though the movie predominantly deals with the ups and downs of this central female relationship, it’s also a lot of fun, particularly while Destiny and her colleagues (including playful cameos from music stars Cardi B and Lizzo) are on the rise. A notable trope of the crime genre is the montage of escalating criminal activities, usually set to an up-tempo song that wraps their misdoings in an aura of giddy mania, and Scafaria’s editor Kayla Emter ticks this box with gusto. The film has no score of its own, instead using an array of popular and classical music, well chosen to match each scene and well incorporated by Emter.

‘Hustlers’ benefits immensely from having a woman in the director’s chair (as well as penning the script). The women at its centre are not judged for their crimes nor are they presented as modern-day Robin Hoods. They’re three-dimensional and complex, and their relationships are not categorised into the all too familiar binary of blind adoration or competitive tall poppy syndrome. Although being a stripper comes with an array of stigmas, the film doesn’t entertain them, simply using their occupations to tell a story about friendship and crime, rather than a story about their jobs. There was a risk that ‘Hustlers’ would turn out cheap or exploitative, but in Lorene Scafaria’s capable hands, it’s both fiercely entertaining and fascinating, and made with more polish than anyone knowing its subject matter might have expected.

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out October 10.

Roadshow Films.

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