Andrew Bujalski’s new movie, Support the Girls, is an American masterpiece. If you think this notion sounds ridiculous considering this is a low-budget comedy about the waitresses of a Hooters knock-off, you are forgiven. However, I can’t promise you’ll be able to forgive yourself if you pass up the opportunity to watch this excellent movie. Most of Support the Girls takes place over 24 hours and in one location. It’s a tiny movie, but it feels gigantic. It has enormous things to say about women, labor, race, class, and humanity. It moved me in a profound way, the way only one or two movies do every year. It is also hilarious.
The movie stars Regina Hall, who’s been excellent for many years and is finally getting a stab at lead roles, such as her radiant turn in last year’s Girls Trip. This time around, she plays Lisa, the general manager of “Double Whammies,” the kind of sports bar where the waitresses wear short shorts and reveal a lot of cleavage. This type of restaurant proves to be a setting ripe for exploration, and positioning Lisa as the central character gets rid of the sleazy male gaze that usually comes with movies about scantily clad women. As manager Lisa is the bridge between business owner and workers, and as a woman she is the safety net between working girls and the charged, potentially dangerous, gaze of the clients.
Lisa is good at her job. She is resourceful. We mostly follow her during one eventful day, in which she is faced with one problem after another, and never fails to find quick and viable solutions. One of the girls says Lisa is “married to this job.”She’d be the perfect manager, except that she cares. She cares about the girls that work for her, and that’s not great for business. She knows what it’s like to be one of these young women and wants to protect and guide them as much as possible. Despite a million things going wrong on this fateful day, trying to help one of her girls is what gets her in trouble with her manager. Being a human and running a business are simply not compatible.
This divide between professionalism and empathy is what makes Lisa such a unique and fascinating character. Manager characters are usually portrayed as ass-kissing weasels who want nothing more than to climb the professional ladder. Their desire to move up in the workplace is usually a sign that they have betrayed the ground-level workers, especially if they started out as one. But Lisa cares. She is a multi-dimensional human with real world problems and the movie is right there with her. There are no p.o.v. shots or surreal touches that get us inside Lisa’s head or anything like that, but Bujalski very explicitly chooses to share the camera with his protagonist. A telling moment comes early in the film: It’s already been a stressful morning when Lisa steps out of the restaurant and enjoys a moment of calm. She takes a deep breath, and the hand-held camera moves up and down very slightly, as if it was breathing with her.It’s a significant touch. One that signals not only toward Bujalski’s commitment to his main character, but to the movie’s overall commitment to empathy and being willing to share in the lives of other humans.
This is a very clear strength when it comes to the girls. You have Danyelle (Shayna McHale), who’s good at her job despite pretty much hating it. There’s new hire Jennelle (Dylan Gelula), a marketing major with a lot of ideas. And above all, there’s eternally peppy Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), the only girl who seems to actually enjoy working at “Double Whammies.” Thanks to this commitment to empathy, the girls are both hilarious and poignant, and the actors who play them are able to make up the best ensemble of the year.
What’s so effective about Support the Girls is that its characters are not helpless, or dumb, or caricatures. They have agency, dimension, initiative. They make choices, they collaborate, they try to get ahead. Some of their decisions are questionable, but we see where they’re coming from. The movie argues that these women have a right to have principles other than those dictated by society, and allowed to make mistakes while trying to live up to them. Lisa says as much during an emotional argument with her husband: “I can take fucking up all day long, but I can’t take not trying.”
Support the Girls positions daily life in the context of an America that keeps on moving despite its deep problems. It casts a light on the people who refuse to lose their humanity just because they have to go along and make it work. Anyone who’s worked a shitty job will immediately relate. Bujalski has pulled a magnificent move, in which he’s couched something profound inside a seemingly unassuming movie. His final trick is closing his movie by echoing the last scene of indie black sheep Garden State, only this time the loud screams into the void ring with the power of America’s working women.