The first rule at Double Whammies, the Hooters-like roadside sports bar where Lisa Conroy (Regina Hall) works, is, in all-caps: “NO DRAMA!” The second? “The four B’s: Be responsible, be informed, be friendly, be sexy.” It’s in this environment of carefully regulated femininity—unthreatening, overtly sexual, almost literally palatable—that Lisa becomes an unlikely maternal figure for her employees, from waitresses to kitchen staff. As the manager, Lisa is charged with putting out one fire after another, all while dealing with her depressive husband (Lawrence Varnado).
And there are many fires, big and small. The film begins with an attempted burglary, which snowballs into an arrest. One waitress, Danyelle (Shayna McHayle), brings in her sick son. Another waitress, Shaina (Jana Kramer), encounters legal problems with a troublesome boyfriend. A third waitress, Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), engages in a less-than-professional relationship with a client, while Jennelle (Dylan Gelula), an entrepreneurially-minded new recruit, brainstorms scandalous ways to streamline business. All the while, Lisa approaches her job in its unwieldy messiness with dogged, borderline delusional idealism. “This is a mainstream place, and it’s a family place, which means that a lot of families come here,” she tells a line-up of new recruits at a group interview. “It also means that we’re all family.”
As much as Lisa tries to extol the “family” virtues of working for Double Whammies, director Andrew Bujalski undercuts her optimism with the hard reality of her environment. With a surprising dose of honesty, “Support the Girls” escapes the precarious pitfall of becoming a feel-good morality fable. Instead, Bujalski trains a keen eye on a forgotten corner of humanity, one that bristles with unexpected poignancy and spirit—and gestures, too, at the surprising effect of one person’s empathy and tenacious hope.
“Support the Girls” relies on a delicate equilibrium of drama and comedy, seriousness punctuated occasionally with bursts of surprising humor. A recently fired waitress (AJ Michalka) gets a massive, inflamed tattoo of Steph Curry on her ribcage (“No, I get it. It’s a black man’s face on a white girl’s body,” she says morosely while Lisa stifles laughter next to her). A misplaced confetti cannon interrupts a sad moment. A burglar in a stretcher is ushered out of the bar in broad daylight, and Maci, ill-advisedly cheerful, shouts, “Hey Lisa! Totally nobody noticed!” Does the humor fall flat sometimes? Yes. And is it in poor taste? Most likely. But it befits the film, which at times can feel like a parody of itself, one tacky facet of ridiculous, down-home Americana exposed at a time.
The eccentric comedy might be misplaced, if it weren’t so desperately welcome. Bujalski does not sugarcoat or shy away from the harsh truth, intercutting scenes of cheerful waitress camaraderie with bleak, monotonous sequences of the highway and scenes of leering men ogling the waitresses like meat. Sexism and racism intersect when only one black waitress is allowed to work per shift. Violence and brutality linger at the film’s margins, just out of shot. Bujalski’s filmic technique supports this hefty, emotional undertaking—two shots of a bubbling vat of grease, which bookend a particularly tense scene, could teach a master class on the Kuleshov effect. “Support the Girls” works subversively with preconceived expectations: The illusory safety of suburbia quickly evaporates when a seemingly well-to-do neighborhood becomes the scene of a literal punch in the gut, violence depicted so uneventfully that it seems callous. Meanwhile, a tacky breastaurant becomes the unlikely site of solidarity and sisterhood.
Though “Support the Girls” derives much of its heart from its ensemble cast, Bujalski’s artistic commitment to an honest portrayal of working class life hinges on one character. As Lisa, Regina Hall exudes a kind of delightful, non-movie star plainness that melds seamlessly with her surroundings. Standing next to a line-up of scantily clad waitresses, Lisa embodies protective maternal energy in her pink button-down. But if “maternal energy” conjures an image of faiblesse, that would be wholly incorrect. In a world governed by the wants and needs of men, Lisa knows how to work the system. She goes to bat for young women without power, even at the expense of her own happiness, but she’s also willing to take the approach of discipline when she sees fit. There’s no real reason for her to stay committed to this job, yet she approaches it with a brand of can-do spirit and genuine affection for her employees. Although Lisa’s optimism is undoubtedly delusional, Hall’s earnestness almost makes you believe in her vision for this world: one of familial love among coworkers who have no real loyalty, neither to each other, nor toward this establishment.
But even the best leadership is not enough to save the Double Whammies staff from falling prey to the capitalist machine, turning to Mancave, a major franchise, for employment when their job security is jeopardized. Eventually, when push comes to shove, even dedicated Lisa sits for an interview with big business. Although “Support the Girls” is primarily a character sketch, it’s secondarily and subtly a film about the workplace—and when it comes to corporate greed, an unforgiving one at that. If establishments like Double Whammies inhumanely commodify female bodies, then big franchises like Mancave magnify this inhumanity in a way that feels like an even greater failure to recognize humanity—streamlining objectification with the ease of factory assembly. “As you well know, one of the joys and challenges of our concept is that much of our workforce is young girls,” says Lisa’s executive interviewer (Brooklyn Decker). “Who, full disclosure, are lovely, but are not brain surgeons… Here, they just do a really good job of idiot-proofing the whole thing.” Lisa tries to remain politely impassive, but it’s obvious what she’s thinking and what Bujalski is suggesting. Maybe the best kind of love is not to be taken care of, but to be taken seriously.
—Staff writer Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolinetsai3.
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