With Support the Girls, a seriocomic study of a single day at Double Whammies, a fictional Hooters-style restaurant in an unnamed Texas city, writer-director Andrew Bujalski splits his attention between the individual and the collective. In doing so, the filmmaker synthesizes the two poles of his cinema so far: Lisa (Regina Hall), the restaurant’s manager, joins a growing list of memorable protagonists in Bujalski’s canon who are united by their struggle to get by in a society increasingly predicated on transactional relationships, while the ensemble-driven exploration of a professional milieu and its culture recalls Computer Chess and parts of Beeswax.
Support the Girls is also Bujalski’s most ostensibly commercial-minded project to date, a sentiment cheekily reinforced by Lisa’s insistence to prospective waitresses that Double Whammies “is a mainstream place.” And that the film moves so fluidly between its two tracks of emphasis is a mark of Bujalski’s shrewd ability, here more than in his prior Results, to assimilate his sociological concerns into a more formulaic framework.
What Support the Girls doesn’t particularly evince is Bujalski’s distinctive propensity for slow-burn pacing and conversations filled with dead air, but at the same time, that lack is germane to the material. The film adopts something of a ticking-clock narrative structure, building toward a climactic episode of workplace misbehavior while incorporating a play-by-play demonstration of how Lisa ultimately loses her job. What’s more, the film’s particular milieu is predicated on the performance of unflagging charisma and sexiness—so where the programming nerds of Computer Chess didn’t have to rely on social competence to succeed, the characters here are trained to keep everyone’s spirits up. In a telling scene, Lisa’s friend, Cameron (Lawrence Varnado), upon fielding Lisa’s self-help advice, mutters back, “I’m not your customer,” underscoring the degree to which friendly restaurant etiquette pervades the social lives of these women.
Bujalski’s prior films have exhibited an interest in working-class Americans, but Support the Girls ups the ante by taking on the structure of an average workday. Beginning with images of highways filled with morning commuters, the film proceeds chronologically from the pre-opening preparations at Double Whammies to the sleepy lunch hours and finally to the evening rush, intensified on this day by the airing of a much-anticipated boxing match.
As the day unfolds, Bujalski acquaints us with the restaurant’s familiar faces: Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), a seasoned waitress and bartender blessed with an unstoppable fount of positivity; Danyelle (Shayna McHayle), a less enthusiastic colleague who pledges loyalty to Lisa over the business; Jennelle (Dylan Gelula), an upstart who takes the restaurant’s “Be Sexy” decree a little too seriously; and Bobo (Lea DeLaria), a butchy regular who unofficially acts as bouncer should a customer get too handsy. Lording over these women from a distance is Cubby (James Le Gros), a sleazy bottom-line type who takes every opportunity to remind Lisa of Double Whammies’s half-measure diversity policy, which places a quota on women of color in the staff so as to mitigate hypothetical dissent among the largely male, white, beer-swilling patronage.
This last fact speaks to the underlying social imbalances of this avowedly family-style establishment, which are both specific to the Texas demographic on display here and endemic to America as a whole. But Support the Girls doesn’t belabor its larger social resonance, revealing instead the unavoidable reality that workplace politics are secondary to the overarching goal of running a tight ship. The small injustices and unknown variables of the workday—from waitresses being casually harassed to an impromptu car wash that turns into a near-pornographic spectacle—are defused quietly and efficiently by Lisa, whose livelihood depends on orchestrating a composed atmosphere on the floor. In spotlighting Lisa as she negotiates these various micro-conflicts, Support the Girls celebrates the unrecognized willpower and perseverance that undergirds low-wage service work in this country.
Sometime around the lunch lull, though, Double Whammies’s well-oiled efficiency is threatened by the arrival of Cubby, who’s irked by some of Lisa’s recent hires, as well as by a wiring issue caused by an attempted burglary at the restaurant. And it’s here that Hall’s performance, already a master class in depicting how Lisa disguises her stress beneath a veneer of affability, takes flight, with the actress now balancing Lisa’s managerial calm with the woman’s low-boiling frustration and sadness at the prospect of severing her day-to-day connection to her coworkers. As Cubby drives Lisa across town to handle a financial crisis, things spin off the rails back at Double Whammies, culminating in a climax that ingeniously sets the logistical troubles that plague the restaurant—in this case, a faulty cable signal—against the collapse of the implicit social contracts between waitresses and customers.
In staging this scene, Bujalski transforms the restaurant’s bar area into a performance space complete with an elevated stage, which retroactively classifies the film as something of a backstage musical. As in that genre, Support the Girls dramatizes the build-up to a main event and keeps the visual focus squarely on the players, only in this case the big show doesn’t go as planned. If Computer Chess exposed the socially inept, vainly competitive side of men, Support the Girls goes after their latent chauvinism and tendency to mask verbal hostility as good-humored banter, all while emphasizing the level-headed resistance of women. In our current cultural climate, this feminist perspective is well-timed, though it’s to Bujalski’s credit that his film is more than the audience-flattering softball its title might suggest. In Support the Girls, we’re seeing roadside America as it is, in all its casual discrimination and small-scale heroism—not as we fear it might be or wish it would be.