Director: Andrew Bujalski
R | 1h 30min | Comedy | 24 August 2018 (USA)
Playing London Film Festival 2018
Writer-director Andrew Bujalski’s (Funny Ha Ha, Computer Chess), new comedy drama Support the Girls wears its sexual politics and critique of the modern day American phenomenon of ‘sports bars with curves’ (think the American Hooters chain) lightly. Instead of just focusing in ruthlessly on the more obvious effects of demanding young female employees wear Daisy Dukes and dance around on the bar top to announce the latest sports event on the cable (leering, drunkly aggressive male customers, with a repartee of endlessly obnoxious cat calls) we instead are pointed more towards a layered, empathetic and often quite funny observation of how a team of mismatched women might negotiate one of the more ruthless examples of modern service industry and form bonds inside and out of it to help get by. The bar in question, a Texas ‘breastaurant’ called Double Whammies whose owner bizarrely has insisted on it emphasising a family-friendly vibe along with the titillation, serves as much as a microcosm as it does a particular workplace, though the particular and peculiar atmosphere is richly drawn; from the huge trucks and even huger men driving them who pull in once the clock hits five, to the depressingly identikit beige-coloured stores that line the strip mall the bar is based on. This is not a place, we sense, where the female staff can get much better work elsewhere. In fact, right up the highway a similar bar called ‘Mancave’ with much the same concept is opening up.
Though not all the cast members I thought came up to her level (though Haley Lu Richardson as the super-perky Maci is great), the ever-excellent Regina Hall really anchors Bujalski’s dive into this deep-fried workplace. She plays floor manager Lisa, the den mother of the joint and the longest-serving employee. Constantly on the move with clipboard and cellphone juggled in one hand and the other hand always on the shoulder of a worried employee at the same time, she is the ultimate compassionate, crisis-managing boss who you immediately sense is the only person there who can fulfil the ‘no drama’ demand of the oleaginous, uptight, and casually sexist owner Cubby (James Le Gros’). The first five minutes of the film are a showcase of what a whirling dervish this woman has to be for each day on the job: getting an incompetent burglar removed from an air vent, firing the chef who is the burglar’s cousin and therefore is the likely suspect who tipped him off about the layout of the safe room, whilst trying to organise a sexy carwash to raise cash for the legal defence of an employee who ran down her abusive boyfriend whilst also trying to hide the unauthorised fundraiser from Cubby. She also has to deal with an influx of new employees, one of whom - Jenelle (Dylan Gelula) - is more than willing to sleaze it up to get those extra tips, in violation of the rules and attitude Lisa expects to be adhered to.
Hall makes you feel the constant battle between exhaustion, frustration, and compassion, not least when the drama fails to end outside the Double Whammy’s doors (she has a depressed husband to deal with who suddenly drops the news during an apartment viewing that the apartment is just for him; he is leaving her). Some problems Lisa can’t solve but must just grit her teeth through, such as her boss’s casual racism in terms of the staff’s ethnic balance (no more than one black woman per shift). By sticking the camera close to Hall for most of the run time, we see the ebb and flow of the service industry up close and the negotiations in terms of time, emotional energy and physical labour a leader has to make. We also see how the weird, hypocritical rationalisations of the place can seep into you if you aren’t careful. Its messy, but invisible women like Lisa make it work. Think of that next time you order a burger and fries.