Rage Against the Machine
by Matthew Eng
Support the Girls
Dir. Andrew Bujalski, U.S., Magnolia Pictures
In the 16 years since Funny Ha Ha jump-started the mumblecore movement, writer-director Andrew Bujalski has quietly excelled at crafting films engineered to work against personal prejudices and viewer expectations. Computer Chess was a surrealist mockumentary centered around the arrogant, oddball attendees of a 1980s chess software tournament that pivoted on the confused coming-of-age of a painfully inexperienced young programmer. Results, Bujalski’s first foray with contemporary digital cameras and recognizable, distributor-friendly actors, burrowed into the hard-bodied, self-help culture of America’s physical fitness gurus, not to satirize these easy targets but to cast them in a surprisingly compassionate romantic comedy about men and women too gun-shy to broach the subjects of love and devotion.
In his latest film, Support the Girls, Bujalski turns his gaze on America’s “breastaurant” industry, those sports bars, such as Hooters, in which scantily clad waitresses serve mugs of beer and baskets of wings to predominantly male customers, who are encouraged to ogle and flirt with the waitstaff when not consumed by whatever game is unfolding on the overhead flat screens that line the joint. Support the Girls is neither the somber institutional survey nor the raucous ensemble farce nor the benignly pandering female empowerment movie that its setting might have occasioned. Instead, Bujalski has utilized this business as a rich backdrop for one of the year’s most unusual films: a day-in-the-life character portrait of a working woman of color that is frequently hilarious yet firmly rooted in its protagonist’s undeniable melancholia.
That protagonist is Lisa (Regina Hall), the longtime manager of Double Whammies, a drab sports bar located off an Austin interstate that has cribbed the Hooters model for its dedicated local clientele. We first meet Lisa sitting in her car in the parking lot outside work, getting in a good, early morning weep before her long day begins, an introduction that instantly recalls the compressed crying fits of Holly Hunter’s Jane Craig in Broadcast News. Like Hunter’s beloved heroine, Lisa is a tireless, tightly wound professional who is fiercely loyal to the workers in her employ. When she’s eventually caught crying by Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), her peppiest and most popular staffer, Lisa slips on a focused, no-nonsense demeanor and begins to psych up her underling for the thankless work ahead. “We’re going all out today,” Lisa intones. “Balls to the wall,” Maci affirmatively responds.
They’ll need the energy. Among the many tasks on Lisa’s plate are interviewing a new group of trainees (including one awkwardly overeager potential hireling, played by Dylan Gelula), dealing with the ramifications of a bungled break-in, finding a new living situation for her shiftless husband, and holding a car wash to raise attorney money for one of her girls, Shaina (Jana Kramer), who hit her scumbag boyfriend with a car the night before. There’s also the matter of keeping her job, a task made increasingly difficult by Cubby (a groggy, growling James Le Gros), the cruel, barely present manager of Double Whammies who has fired Lisa on multiple occasions but has yet to file the paperwork that would make her termination valid. Amid all of this, Lisa is aided by her two star servers, Maci and single mother Danyelle (Shayna McHayle, better known as New York’s ribald, underground rap queen Junglepussy), while striving to find joy in simple things, like chirping birds and heart-shaped stickers, as a distraction from her shitty job and marital rough patch.
Lisa’s discordant traits could understandably overwhelm even the most capable of actresses, but they’re all realized here in the star performance of Hall, who has been a subtle life force to countless projects in recent years, from About Last Night to Barbershop: The Next Cut to Girls Trip, and remains as naturally buoyant a comedian as any we have working today. Throughout the duration of the film, Bujalski, longtime cinematographer Matthias Grunsky, and editor Karen Skloss seldom shift attention away from Hall. The actress, in turn, provides Support the Girls with a perfectly physicalized characterization that advances our understanding of Lisa’s interior life as this pivotal day grows progressively hellish. Basing her performance off the basic truth that work itself requires a performance, Hall pokes hole after hole in Lisa’s self-conscious cheer, her restless, honest eyes peeking out from her tired but still-smiling face to show us the psychological toll of having to stomach the inadequacies, idiocies, and condescensions of others on a daily basis.
Bujalski possesses an obvious penchant for creating the sort of headstrong yet emotionally vulnerable female characters that are often hard to locate in mainstream cinema, a mini-tradition of this writer-director that stretches all the way back to Kate Dollenmayer’s gawky, free-falling postgrad in Funny Ha Ha and also includes Maggie and Tilly Hatcher’s codependent Beeswax sisters, as well as the perpetually agitated trainer played with such bewitching precision by Cobie Smulders in Results. Hall’s Lisa is a worthy addition to this admirable gallery of everyday women, but Bujalski is also keen to focus considerable attention on the characters played by first-time actress McHayle, whose steel-trap deadpan is an asset to countless scenes, and especially Richardson, who was so affectingly transparent in last year’s Columbus and shines here in an altogether different assignment. Bujalski sets up Richardson’s Maci early on to be instantly recognizable as the in-house ditz with a heart of gold (think Daryl Hannah in Steel Magnolias), but the actress deepens the character with infectious warmth and comedic flair (her expressive hands and sinuous, hip-swinging, Barbie-doll poise are treasures unto themselves). Like Danyelle, Maci is an intuitive hard worker ten steps ahead of everyone else but who knows full well that she must pretend to be intellectually lagging in order to do her job correctly.
In this current political climate, the women-led premise of Support the Girls will likely be snatched up by film writers eager to pitch Bujalski’s work as a story of and for our times, perhaps describing it as the godforsaken “film we need right now.” It’s not that Bujalski’s film isn’t emblematic of a society in which a flagrant sexual predator could occupy the highest office in the land, or one in which various titans of industry could comfortably remain in power, untried and unapologetic, even after their abuses of women have been long exposed. But Bujalski doesn’t strain to give the micro-scenarios of his film any aggressive real-world relevance. He instead prefers to let the inevitable contemporary resonances of a story about marginalized, working-class women dealing with bullies and buffoons surface organically. Bujalski’s directorial hand is as unassuming and unassertive as ever here, and his discreet authorial signature and modest narrative scopes are the likely reasons why so many of his films remain regrettably under-seen and his own gifts as a filmmaker left regularly under-celebrated. But Support the Girls, Results, and the films that precede them could have only emanated from a filmmaker who fully grasps these worlds and their inhabitants and is confident enough in his understanding to allow his politics to casually manifest in words and behavior, rather than slathering them across each and every frame or designing his characters with obvious symbolic import.
Plenty of characters make explicit mention of the unjust realities faced by the women of Double Whammies: Danyelle repeatedly bemoans the rule that disallows having two black workers on the floor at the same time, while Cubby talks openly about not taking on “fat girls” in the same breath that he insists he doesn’t discriminate in his hiring. Bujalski himself isn’t immune to the occasional misstep in his handling of such discrimination, as when Arturo (Steve Zapata), one of the numerous Hispanic cooks on staff, is revealed to be involved in the attempted robbery that begins Lisa’s day. This is a tone-deaf detail that calls up the narrow-minded subplot in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike in which Gabriel Iglesias’s Mexican DJ masterminds the strip club’s in-house drug-dealing ring, a pigeonholing choice that says more about a screenwriter’s assumptions regarding minority workers than it does about the actual character in question. Even despite such lapses, Bujalski excels at finding new ways to visualize and verbalize the gender imbalances that characterize the culture, like when he and Skloss linger on a menacing shot of a pair of spread, waiting male legs during an interview for new waitresses, the camera’s vantage rendering its owner’s upper body as seemingly detached. Seconds later, Bujalski makes the canny decision to put one of the more cutting critiques of these hostesses in the pearly-white mouth of an Ivanka-evoking corporate recruiter played by Brooklyn Decker, who boasts about “idiot-proofing” her business model for the female waitstaff of the ManCave, a nationwide franchise soon opening not too far from Double Whammies.
“It makes such a difference when your boss cares about you,” Maci poignantly proclaims during the climax of Support the Girls, in which an absent Lisa leaves Double Whammies in the hands of Danyelle, who inspires the ladies to revolt against Cubby and the customers. It’s the only sequence of the film that feels a bit stiff, even stagey, in its anarchic mayhem, but it’s sufficiently enlivened by Bujalski’s actors, particularly Richardson and McHayle, who have early on achieved an authentic and clear-eyed camaraderie with Hall, the better to drive home one of the fundamental truths of this shaggy, deep-feeling film. The nature of Double Whammies, as with any capitalistic corporation, might normally lead these women to devalue and compete with one another, but their abiding respect, their imperfect sisterhood, still lingers.
Which isn’t to say that sisterhood saves the day or restores the basic humanity so sorely missing in Lisa, Danyelle, and Maci’s profession. Bujalski has a big heart but he doesn’t traffic in remedial, glass-half-full bromides, which is why Support the Girls ends on a visceral note of vented exasperation, one of several such moments that boil over throughout the film. Sometimes all an insulted and underestimated American worker can do is lift a righteous middle finger in the air or just scream her ass off into the void, which, in Bujalski’s film, is represented by a spacious sky of gloomy gray, a Target logo just visible in the horizon.