A love letter to any woman just trying to get through the day with their head held high and their dignity intact, Support the Girls is one of the most quietly powerful films of the year. You almost don’t even notice how completely the film has worked its way into your heart until near the end, when you see the smallest gestures of solidarity, defiance, or hope (achieved through solidarity while also being a gesture of defiance) in the face of all the casual shit and minute (or larger) abuse that people, women especially, have to deal with day-to-day.
Set almost entirely over the course of a long, lousy day, Support the Girls follows Regina Hall’s Lisa as she struggles to keep a dozen different plates spinning at “Double Whammies,” a sort of gentler Hooters. As manager, it’s Lisa’s job to make sure that the customers are satisfied while the scantily-clad servers feel safe and protected as well, no easy task. Early in the film, Lisa extols the principles of sisterhood to a small group of new hires, and while asserting that a group of co-workers are actually ‘family’ might seem like so much corporate-speak, it’s clear in Hall’s performance and Lisa’s ongoing actions throughout the day that she has truly taken those words to heart, and the women under her employ love her for it.
Maintaining that cheery spirit of camaraderie proves difficult as Support the Girls keeps finding new flies to dump in Lisa’s ointment. She comes into work to discover a would-be burglar trapped in the ducts of the ceiling, the cable’s gone out the day of a big fight, various waitresses bring various calamities (childcare is needed, customers are overly-flirted with, schedules break down), and on top of everything else, Lisa is trying to hold a secret car wash fundraiser for a co-worker trying to leave an abusive relationship, without alerting owner Cubby (James Phantasm 2 Le Gros) to what she’s doing. And when you factor in Lisa’s own personal difficulties with a faltering marriage to a deeply depressed husband, it’s no wonder she begins the day quietly crying in private.
Writer-director Andrew Bujalski is careful to never overplay his hand toward either comedy or drama. There are big laughs in the film, but things never escalate to the level of farce, or to Clerks-ian absurdities. And Bujalski also ably keeps the dramatic beats from tipping over into melodrama and tearjerker-isms. There are moments in Support the Girls that are truly wrenching, but there’s an understated nature to even the most fraught encounters. Bujalski understands that a moment of heated silence between two people can scald as harsh as any screamed invective, and he milks those moments for all they are worth.
None of this would matter if the ensemble didn’t click together, but Bujalski struck gold. Hall is magnificent throughout as a woman who can’t help but give a shit, even when the selfish choice is the wiser, safer option. Support the Girls at times becomes a muted, gender-flipped Book of Job, pushing and pressuring Lisa on all sides to see if or when she snaps. Hall’s bubbly front is captivating and inviting, but she delicately threads this with moments of regret or longing or flat-out rage. Like Laurie Metcalf’s astonishingly assured performance in Lady Bird, the specificity of Hall’s performance turn her into a universal archetype of ‘Mother’, and it’s crushing to watch her absorb emotional body blow after body blow. Hall has been in this business for a long time, but the one-two punch of Girls Trip and this are a stark reminder of just how ably she can command the screen as a lead while also supporting a large cast around her.
Bujalski’s script is generous throughout, finding specific humanity within every character who wanders through Double Whammies. As Maci, Rachel’s second-in-command, Haley Lu Richardson is all bubbly energy and brilliant smiles, but Maci is no fool no matter what distracted customers (or co-workers) might assume. And as overworked mom Danyelle, Shayna McHayle (who I guess often performs under the stage name ‘Junglepussy’) cuts an imposing figure for much of the film before nearly walking off with the movie in the last stretch. Much of the wackiest material in the film is centered around newbie Jennelle (played by Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt favorite Dylan Gelula) and her conviction that she can game the system by acting as a de facto stripper, swaggering through one slapstick pose after another with delightfully misplaced confidence.
Even the odious Cubby is afforded a measure of empathy. Le Gros isn’t in the movie a whole bunch, but he etches in quick, careful detail the inner life of a guy who desperately needs to be seen as tough and in charge, and the festering cloud of insecurity that this attitude is meant to mask. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Cubby ever becomes sympathetic at all, but Le Gros lets you see the pathetic core of the character before his actions can render him a figure of utter disdain.
I’ll be honest about something: If I had known that Bujalski was the guy behind this movie, I might not have sought it out. I’ve got nothing against the guy, but Bujalski is often credited with helping to usher in the whole ‘mumblecore’ movement, a subgenre I truly cannot stand and that I would wish to the cornfield if I could. The only movie of his that I’ve seen previously was Computer Chess, which I know got some pretty adoring press when it came out, but that I found almost entirely stultifying. Computer Chess ends with an image so out-of-nowhere, so movie-rewriting-ly bugfuck perplexing that it almost made me want to go back and rewatch the whole thing but, and this is the key part, I’ve never been able to muster the interest. Computer Chess was certainly well-observed in how it depicted a bunch of awkward nerds forming social castes within their outcast society and then devouring each other (the film was especially sensitive to how a woman, simply by having the audacity to exist, sent shockwaves of both desire and disdain through a male-dominated community) but it wasn’t a group of people that I enjoyed spending any time with, and there was a derisive quality to that film that suggested Bujalski felt, or came to feel, that way as well.
Here, Bujalski loves these women. It’s there in the warm glow of cinematographer Matthias Grunsky’s images, and in the generosity the script expresses towards each and every flawed person who works in that restaurant. It would have been incredibly easy for this to tip over into a polemic, a Killing Them Softly-style screed (I know a lot of my colleagues love that movie and I just plain don’t fucking get it) that constantly nudges you about how what these women experience in this restaurant is a microcosm for How America Is Now. Bujalski is smart enough to know you’ll already make those connections, so instead he trusts in the honesty of this story and the abilities of his cast to carry that metaphor across. In just a few small moments, he’s able to depict the way that (not exclusively but often white) men become entitled, whiny brats when challenged or upset in any way, which only impresses upon these women, and us watching, how important solidarity and sisterhood are in facing down that kind of bullshit.
Support the Girls is probably not the kind of movie that’s going to get any traction during awards season (though Hall is picking up accolades, which warms my “used to watch Scary Movie 2, that’s right I said 2, come at me, on Comedy Central all the time” heart). It’s too small, too quiet, too unconcerned with the towering moments of screeching EMOTION that fuel Oscar clips. But by zeroing in on this small group of women struggling and surviving with and thanks to each other, Bujalski has made a film that captures something vital and important about this moment in time, and about how we as a people have tried to endure and possibly thrive. With Hall as its true North Star guiding the whole endeavor, Support the Girls is one of the best films of the year.