By Liam Lacey
If you saw the recent viral video of 21-year-old Savanah waitress Emilia Holden body-slamming a male customer who groped her backside, you'll understand the appeal of Andrew Bujalski's Support the Girls, a loose but sharply observed serio-comedy about B.S. jobs and female resilience that's like a contemporary Office Space in pink halter tops and denim booty shorts.
Bujalski, the so-called godfather of dialogue-oriented "mumblecore" movement and America’s lo-fi answer to England's Mike Leigh, makes comedies set in social and professional microcosms (fitness instructors in Results, programmers in Computer Chess). Support the Girls does that again, but he has also created a terrific role for Regina Hall (Scary Movie, Girls Trip) that makes the actress seem like a fresh discovery. She plays Lisa, the middle-aged bar manager and empathetic den mother to a group of half-dressed young waitresses in a Hooters-style "breastaurant"-cum-sports-bar called Double Whammies.
The movie follows Lisa over the course of one challenging work day, from the pre-opening hours, to the lunch crowd and a busy evening, when the bar will be crowded with guys to watch a much-anticipated boxing match on the big screen. Throughout the day, Lisa hopscotches from one crisis to another: police have to be called to remove a burglar who is trapped in an air vent, the cable television keeps conking out, a biker calls a waitress "fat" and Lisa throws him out.
Meanwhile, Lisa's marriage to her unemployed, depressed husband (Lawrence Varnado) is on the verge of collapsing. As she wryly tells him, "Sad men are my business" but at least the guys at the club make an effort to have fun. To top things off, one of the former waitresses needs to be bailed out of jail, after breaking her abusive boyfriend's leg with her car.
Lisa, without her boss's approval, decides to hold a charity car-wash outside the bar, using new trainees to give the drivers an eyeful through the soapy windows. Keeping the specific nature of the fundraiser quiet, Lisa puts up the double-entendre of a sign: "Support the Girls" which gives the film its title. The bar's surly owner, Cubby (James LeGros) returns unexpectedly from a fishing trip and he’s not happy.
Fans of the Netflix series Glow about women wrestlers celebrating their agency in a sexually objectified job will find similarities in Girls’ line-up of oddballs. The group includes the vivacious cheerleader-type, Maci (Haley Lu Richardson) who tells the new recruits the house rules and techniques for inducing tips (mouth open smiles, lots of touching but no squeezing).
There's the brusque, aloof Danyelle (Shayna McHayle, a.k.a. musician-rapper Junglepussy), who's loyalty is only to Lisa, not the job. (When Danyelle brings her 12-year-old son to work because she can't find a babysitter, Lisa puts the kid to work sorting out the shift schedule.) Then there's the pretty young newcomer, Jennelle (Dylan Gelula), who hasn't learned how to calibrate the level of her "flirtatious" pitch.
Hall's character aims only to make everyone happy – the undocumented workers in the kitchen, the leering dads with their wives and kids, the lesbian truck driver (Lea DeLaria) who holds up the bar. While Lisa always means well, it’s a losing war of attrition. In one scene, she's outside the bar trying to cool down. She sees a bird flying overhead, conspicuously showing off its freedom, so she flips the bird the bird.
Support the Girls’ sexualized workplace setting seems a deliberate come-on, reminiscent of a TV workplace cringe-comedies like Two Broke Girls or MTV’s short-lived 2013 sleaze-ality show, Big Tips, Texas, but it’s also anchored in an economic reality. In the wake of the 2008 U.S. economic recession, more women in the service industry were obliged to put their bodies on the line in these types of feed-and-ogle joints (The Tilted Kilt, Mugs N Jugs, Twin Peaks) which flourished in the wake of the U.S. recession while traditional sit-down family restaurants went into decline.
Nowadays, the girly-themed restaurant trend has flat-lined. (In a June GQ article, Is There A Place for Hooters in 2018?, columnist Jaya Saxena quotes a former Hooters’ waitress, “You are paid to be sexually harassed and objectified.”) Bodies are tied to business cycles: Late in the movie, a consultant for a franchise chain explains to Lisa how the target market is shifting: Breasts are out, butts are in.
One of the pleasures of Support the Girls is that it explores the constant fender-benders of sex, race, class, and age without ever coming off as preachy or lecturing. Making money means exploitation and as Lisa keeps reminding her girls, Double Whammies is a "mainstream" place.
Support the Girls may not exactly be Das Kapital with cleavage but you could think of it as one small body-slam against a system that has its nasty hands all over our business.
Support the Girls. Directed and written by Andrew Bujalski. Starring Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, Shayna McHayle, Lea DeLaria, AJ Michalka, Brooklyn Decker and James Le Gros. Opens August 24 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox and Vancouver’s VIFF Vancity Theatre. Available August 28 on ITunes and On Demand.