The last two years have taught us plenty about hard times, and forced us to find bursts of light wherever possible. Lorene Scafaria has always told stories of people in miserable circumstances, grieving or struggling, always finding little pleasures in them. Veronica Phillips celebrates the ones she found too.
I found Lorene Scafaria’s 2019 film Hustlers for the first time on December 1, 2021, right as things were starting to feel upsettingly familiar. It’s been a really, truly difficult couple of years, and there’s something particularly gut-wrenching about that collective sense of deja-vu that comes with each new coronavirus variant, as the little things we could maybe-sort-of start enjoying again (and even then, only if privileged and safe enough) are once again on the brink of disappearing from under us.
Early in Hustlers, the strip club’s newbie, Destiny (Constance Wu), watches the club’s main draw, the mesmerizing Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), attempt to teach her a few new moves. As Ramona spins about on a pole to a dreamy, floaty Chopin tune, Destiny stares up at her, mesmerized by her new friend, soaking in the simple, joyous experience of watching a beautiful woman be beautiful, graceful, practiced. It’s a moment of little pleasure.
I’m lucky enough to feel relatively fine most of the time, but I miss the small stuff in flashes: a bar floor so sticky it becomes precarious to walk on, the possibility of a kiss with a stranger during a night out, the hoarseness of yelling over the other yelling voices in a restaurant, the unique pleasure of spending the day just doing things; a collection of entering stores and bars and restaurants and friends’ homes in a city, the abstract notion of being able to have a free, easy, and messy early twenties. “It’s the little things that I miss,” we all repeat to each other over and over again, the same empathetic nod and pout in place.
None of the lives in Scafaria’s three directorial pieces – Hustlers, 2015’s The Meddler, and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) — are necessarily happy or easy ones. In The Meddler, Marnie (Susan Sarandon) has developed a codependent, boundaryless relationship with her daughter and refuses to properly grieve the loss of her husband, instead repressing and insisting frequently to anyone that’ll listen, “Basically, I feel great!” Seeking a Friend for the End of the World follows two newfound friends, Penny (Keira Knightley) and Dodge (Steve Carell) on a road trip in the final days before an apocalyptic meteor strike. Hustlers follows a group of strippers who develop a questionable scheme involving drugging wealthy men and extorting money from them in order to survive.
Scafaria’s cinematic world deals with a certain existential dread, a slog, an awareness of the unfairness of life, be it for sex workers (and, by extension, all of us under the capitalist regime as it stands), widows and fatherless daughters (and by extension, all of us who have experienced the debilitating loss of love), or even for those in the days before the apocalypse (a feeling that becomes all the more familiar every day).
And yet, I notice on my watches and rewatches that little pleasures always find their way into Scafaria’s worlds, unannounced and unprompted. Ramona twirling on her pole, a master of her craft, delightful to just look at. Marnie’s drive in a cherry red convertible, palm trees above her, with Barbara Stephens’ ‘That’s The Way It Is’ playing (because if Scafaria knows one of the great little pleasures of cinema, its an eclectic, glorious soundtrack). Penny and Dodge sharing a large glass of red wine, a cuddly puppy, a warm house, experiencing the spark of early love between two people that’s unavoidable, even if the world is ending in just a few days. Little pleasures.
On the three nights in a row that I first find and watch Scafaria’s movies, I begin with a little ritual – a walk to the McDonald’s across the street from my little apartment for a big fountain Diet Coke. I sip on it as I watch Marnie make an egg-in-the-hole with fresh eggs, thrilled for her as she butters the pan, cracks the egg perfectly in the center of the toast, mops up every last delicious bite on her plate. I giggle with Ramona and Destiny and their little crew over champagne, I delight in Penny’s discovery of some new records in an abandoned house.
I watch enough of these movies that I get the urge to start screenwriting again. It’s fun, even if I work at a snail’s pace with only the intention of sending it to my best friend. Another little pleasure. I show mom and dad The Meddler while I’m home for Christmas, and my mom laughs at all the parts I laugh at, cries at all the parts I cry at. Another little pleasure. Scafaria’s cinematic worlds remind me over and over again that little pleasures are still all around me, that I am lucky enough to take little snippets of joy from time to time.
These movies do not have magical, freeing happy endings. The apocalypse still comes for Penny and Dodge. Marnie gets a little better with boundaries, but has no intention of stopping obsessively calling her daughter. When encouraged to call Ramona again after their relationship falls apart, Destiny responds with a quiet “yeah” as a single tear falls down her cheek, a moment that seems to let us know she will never call Ramona, one of the great loves of her life, again.
These movies both mourn and celebrate the passage of time, the way life is both sacred and heart-aching. In their final moments together, Penny cries to Dodge, wishing out loud that they could have known each other longer. “It isn’t enough time,” Penny weeps. “It never would have been,” Dodge gently responds, brushing his fingers in her hair, taking pleasure in just staring at her. Ramona shows a journalist the two photos she keeps with her at all times — one of a baby Destiny, and one of a baby Ramona. She wonders whether if they had known each other as kids, would they maybe have been able to watch out for each other? “Or maybe it wouldn’t have mattered,” she murmurs, admitting that maybe life would have unfolded exactly as it did. Life is hard and unfair. We never have enough time. We can’t go back and save our loved ones. We can’t change the way we will inevitably experience loss. And yet, those little pleasures crack through. Maybe the whole point is embracing those tiny moments when you feel like you’re about to be swallowed whole.
I have a rough day. I feel the inside-ness of it all, the way I want to be doing things I can’t justify, not right now, the way I miss being a human in ways I took for granted a few years ago. To clear my head, I take my dog, CJ, on a walk (a little pleasure), and she wears the little Carhartt raincoat for puppies that I bought her (a little pleasure), and I come home wet, not cured of anything, but feeling a little better, a little freer, just because I got to breathe some fresh air (a little pleasure). Life still gives me moments of joy, of ease, even in some of the hardest times yet. I feel great. Or, if not great, it’ll do for now.