Once proclaimed the ‘godfather of mumblecore’, Bostonian (and current Austinite) filmmaker Andrew Bujalski is now six features into an unpredictable career that began to distance itself from this initial moniker with 2013’s inventive and inspired Computer Chess. His latest, Support the Girls, continues along the more commercial trajectory set by Results (2015), but if anything Bujalski has refined his independent vision and knack for crafting convincing lived-in worlds for sharply drawn characters. A workplace comedy on its surface, Support the Girls is, at its core, genuinely serious and nuanced in its concerns with American working-class life. Fluent in the particularities of the milieu it inhabits, Bujalski has fashioned a humanist ode to worker solidarity, an illustration of inequality with considered political inclinations that is nevertheless refreshingly light on its feet.
Certificate 15 86 mins approx
Director Andrew Bujalski
Lisa Regina Hall
Maci Haley Lu Richardson
Cubby James Le Gros
Danyelle Shayna McHayle
Jennelle Dylan Gelula
Krista AJ Michalka
Kara Brooklyn Decker
Shaina Jana Kramer
The film follows a tumultuous day in the life of Lisa (Regina Hall), the manager of Double Whammies, a low-rent sports bar located just off an anonymous Texan highway overpass and staffed by young female servers in revealing uniforms. Arriving in the morning to help train a new set of ‘Whammies girls’, Lisa discovers that a man has become stuck in the vent just above the safe-room during an attempted robbery – and things don’t really go uphill from there. A warm, dignified woman who takes pride in her job even as everything about it seems to contradict her character, Lisa treats her employees like family and her customers with respect. Kindly but tough, she carries herself like someone with a realistic knowledge that what she may be worth and what the world owes her aren’t exactly similar.
It’s one thing after another, and Lisa has to manage the bar while deflecting her aggressive boss Cubby (the always welcome James Le Gros, disconcertingly convincing as an ignoramus in need of anger-management lessons), who is trying to force her to leave the job, as well as dealing with the stress of an impending separation and raising money for a troubled former employee – at the same time keeping up her own appearance and that of Double Whammies. Fortunately, she has by her side morale-boosting co-workers, including the impossibly bubbly and sweet Maci (Haley Lu Richardson) and the charismatically sardonic Danyelle (Shayna McHayle). The supporting cast is superb, helping to maintain the film’s sweet-and-sour balancing act, but it’s Hall who elevates everything with one of the most memorable lead performances in recent years. She emphasises the film’s complexities with conflicted expressions of generosity and exhaustion that say far more than words.
While things periodically take us out of Whammies’ world, much of the goings-on are confined to the bar. Bujalski effortlessly stages these scenes in lively fashion, with characters going in out of frame and action moving dynamically throughout the space, conveying a palpable sense of the motions of a service job and how the workplace functions. The film brings the bar to life as something malleable that shifts depending on the time of day and the clientele therein, culminating in a broadcast fight-night gone wrong – a would-be climactic companion to Tati’s famous restaurant breakdown sequence in Playtime (1967), in which the rebellious subversion is ultimately futile. Whenever things do take us elsewhere, it has a point. A drive with Cubby and Lisa moves from a heated argument to the disgruntled boss pursuing a vehicle in a bout of road rage, taking them on a detour that traces Double Whammies to the class-contrastive setting of suburbia.
A great amount of attention is paid to the tender interactions between Lisa and the other employees, but things never become overly sentimental. Ultimately, Lisa, by virtue of her managerial position, is at once exploited by her employer and perpetuates that very system’s exploitation and objectification of the women working beneath her. However, she approaches transcendence with her intelligence, grace and the upholding of her principles. Early in the film, she declares: “Today could go from good to great.” It’s the sort of mantra one clings to in order to keep going, even as the powers that be mock any notions of social mobility or self-actualisation.
The screwball nonchalance of the film might suggest a trajectory towards a happy ending, but things arrive at a profound gesture of frustration in a stunning final scene that recalls, of all films, Pasolini’s Theorem (1968). It is here that Bujalski peels the layers away to reveal his intricate critique of the oppressive systemic mechanics that perpetuate sexism, racism and poverty and create illusions of progress. The beginnings of catharsis are cut short, and a bigger picture is implied by the surrounding highways which connect this pocket of US life to the rest of the country.
A bittersweet, comic portrait of the solidarity and friendship between female staff members at a Hooters-style restaurant in Texas, Andrew Bujalski’s timely Support the Girls should finally provide the breakthrough the director’s talent deserves. By Jamie Dunn.