Quick, imagine the kind of workplace comedy film that plays out in your head when I tell you about a movie like Support the Girls: It’s about a pivotal day in-the-life for Lisa (Regina Hall), the manager of Double Whammies, a Hooters-like restaurant somewhere in Texas. If you’re expecting broad slapstick, you’re wrong. If you’re expecting a polemic about how shitty the service industry is, you’re wrong as well, and if you’re expecting a screed against sexism in businesses like that, well, you’re not going to really get that either. Given that it’s from mumblecore maestro and Boston native Andrew Bujalski (last seen documenting the start of the computer age in 2013’s Computer Chess), this isn’t exactly going to be Nine to Five, though it shares a similar heart with that film, if not its frustration.
Support the Girls, and I mean this as a compliment, is essentially what would happen if you married two of our best modern takes on the workplace comedy — the dry and stark sensibility of the original Office paired with the heart of its American counterpart — and infused some Schraderian frustration beneath its surface. All this is done without Bujalski having to sacrifice anything that makes him such an interesting and innovative filmmaker, and the result is stunning and as broadly accessible as the other mumblers have often tried (and failed) to be in their mainstream efforts.
When I said it was a pivotal day in her life, I meant it: Lisa’s life is all over the place. For one, she’s got an employee, Shaina (Jana Kramer), staying with her after Shaina hit her abusive boyfriend with a car, and Lisa’s terrified that the girl might face jail time after her attempt to free herself from this douchebag. So, she tries to organize a small car wash in order to raise money for a lawyer for her, with the help from her two closest friends at work — the excited and happy Maci (Haley Lu Richardson) and the witty and tough Danyelle (Shayna McHayle) — to help her with it. Meanwhile, Lisa’s trying to find an apartment along with her lazy husband (Jermichael Grey) and dealing with an employee who decided to go out and get a Steph Curry tattoo on her stomach, which is against policy (even though Lisa doesn’t really think it should be, either).
Her asshole boss Jay (James LeGros), back from vacation early, is breathing down her neck, threatening her entire day with his anger issues. To top it all off, a cook’s brother broke into the building the night before, and got trapped in the ceiling, and when he was retrieved by the police, he fucked up the cable — a bad thing for a place like Double Whammies on the night of a huge MMA fight. Somehow, all of these problems get worse and worse, until Lisa — and the girls — reach their breaking points.
It’s hard not to empathize with the crew at Double Whammies (especially if you’ve worked in the service industry), even when things begin to get out of hand near the end of the film, but Bujalski crucially never lets this cross into pity, and isn’t content with easy characterization: Even the asshole owner of the sports bar has understandable motivations for his actions over the course of the film (though a road rage outburst that ends hilariously provides some just comeuppance). This includes the bar itself as an institution: Its role in society is frequently interrogated from all angles, as well as the treatment its staff receives by the very nature of its existence. Its modest ambitions, which, as a character states, are to provide a loving and “mothering” environment and entertainment for folks looking for a good meal and some comfort (as Lisa points out, if these men wanted to see nude women and get drunk, there are a dozen strip clubs nearby) often conflict with the reality: That a number of their customers are misogynist pigs who abuse the staff and are only there to inflict harm on these women. This is usually done in comparison to the corporate offering, ManCave, which looms as a potential death knell for this independent small business. It’s more stable, sure, and perhaps protects its employees better, but there’s an emptiness, a sterility, about the entire enterprise, one that prevents its customers from forming the thing that keeps Double Whammies’ good customers coming back: The people behind it.
And what wonderful people they are! It’s hard not to feel a kinship with each of the women who work there. Lisa, above all, is given the most careful shading, as she’s an earnestly good person, who gives a shit about each and every one of her employees like they were a family member, and is stuck in a job that makes her often not as nice as she’d like to be. Not to mention, we’re following this woman on what may ultimately be the worst day of her life so far — she opens the movie sobbing in her car and finishes it having made some life-altering decisions — but she still manages to keep her head above water, even if it is often a struggle. It’s a dramatic showcase of Hall’s talents as a comedian and as an actor, a far cry from the goofy slapstick required of her by the Zuckers in the Scary Movie series.
No scene is more demonstrative of what I mean than the one where she finally is able to talk with Shayna in her living room, and discovers that all of her hard work throughout the day for her may have been for naught. She juggles so many painful emotions throughout the course of that scene, reacting to the ever-changing stimuli that surrounds her, before ultimately deciding to do what she believes is right. One could only hope to have as much strength as her in a moment like that.
That said, the other leads offer their own sort of wisdom as well, without Bujalski and company ever feeling like they’re preaching to you. The ebullient Maci, who may or may not be dating a customer against Lisa’s wishes, is described as another character as being “an angel sent from heaven to show us what a good attitude looks like.” Richardson lives up to this description, as her jovial outlook manages to brighten the movie at its darkest moments (a scene in which she surprises Lisa in the midst of a private outburst of anger with an unexpected affirmation is such a beautifully comic moment that I can’t wait for you to see it).
Again, it would be so easy for this character to be annoying or frustrating — one could see a lesser actress twisting this character into some sort of monster — but every aspect of her performance succeeds due to her strident commitment and immense charisma. Likewise, Danyelle is essentially the physical manifestation of the words “don’t take any shit,” and her actions near the end of the film speak to that — she sees an injustice and attempts to right it in her own way. She’s brave and funny as fuck, and McHayle — perhaps the true surprise of this film — has a winning intensity about her performance that only breaks when she’s around the people she really gives a shit about: her son and her work family.
Bujalski clearly loves the environment, as well, finding plenty of beauty and charm in the highway strip mall and zen peace in the sounds of the cars moving along an overpass. He captures a side of the “real” America that you aren’t given often even in the coast-centric indie circuit, and is never once patronizing about it. But, for all of its broad appeal, Support the Girls will probably piss a lot of people off for any number of terrible reasons — and that’s a given with what passes for “controversy” in the pop culture world these days.
But there’s one terrible criticism I want to quickly grapple with: The dumbest complaint you’ll hear about this movie is that it isn’t funny, and it isn’t true for two key reasons. One, it’s absolutely funny as hell, to the point that I’m talking around a lot of the best material — Bujalski doesn’t spotlight his jokes in the same way that other directors might, and they often aren’t the specific locus of activity in a given scene — and I think it’ll reward people on repeat viewings, going back and seeing moments that you might have missed the first time around. Two, the drama and the characters you’ll find within in its tight 90-minute runtime more than make up for it: If it even is a bait-and-switch with its punny title and whatnot, it’s doing you a service by luring you in under these false pretenses. Support the Girls may not ultimately be what you expected or wanted, but it may just be what you need right now.