Andrew Bujalski hides his cinematic modus operandi inside a joke during the first act of Support the Girls. Lisa (Regina Hall), the general manager of a Hooters-like “boobs, bros, and beers” bar, Double Whammies, is conspiring with her right-hand woman and server, Danyelle (Shayna McHayle). Lisa talks Danyelle into flirting with an employee at a neighboring home-audio store so that the restaurant staff can borrow equipment for an ad hoc charity car wash they’re holding to benefit one of their number. The two women ask their target, Jay (John Elvis), for a home-theater demonstration as Danyelle, already reluctant about the mission, is forced to rebuff his not-so-sly sexual and romantic advances. The scene takes purposeful pause to show the demonstration video: fingers tinkling along the keys of grand piano, birds chirping in the early morning, drone shots of a majestic waterfall. Lisa stares at it blankly, repressing her judgment of the display’s empty grandiosity as the video's narrator expounds on the virtues and limitless potential of these images.
For Bujalski, the purpose of cinema could not be more opposite. He’s the forefather of the “mumblecore” movement — a current of early-to-mid-aughts indie films that are filled with low-key performances and concerned with low-key life. Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2002), along with Joe Swanberg’s Greta Gerwig-launching Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) and the Duplass Brothers’ The Puffy Chair (2004), ushered in this the mini-genre. While those filmmakers have largely continued working in the same hushed vein, Bujalski moved outward into more experimental territory, making 2012’s Computer Chess, an Altman-esque sprawl shot on low-grade consumer home video. That was a supreme step forward, but now, Support the Girls is his crowning achievement. On its gleeful surface, it retains the low-stakes sitcom setup of the movement Buljaski helped to create. Roiling below that, though, the film contains deep reserves of humanity: moments of spiritual grace under pressure, moral and ethical consideration, and the purest expressions of understanding and platonic love.
“Let’s go straight to number two,” suggests Maci (the apparently chameleonic Haley Lu Richardson), the superstar server with a permanent smile and a shining personality to match, skipping past the first work rule of “No Drama!” By the time Lisa and Maci welcome a group interview of potential new hires to their Texas bar and grill, the former has had a complete emotional meltdown in her car before discovering that a burglar is currently stuck in the restaurant’s air vents. It’s a workday-from-hell premise that doubles as a series of biblical tests of faith. The day is complicated further by Lisa mounting the car wash for Shaina (Jana Kramer), who has just run over her violent boyfriend, saddling her with the potential for a costly court case. Set almost entirely during this single day — save for a gorgeously wrought coda — Support the Girls works on a small scale to present a snapshot of the lives of these women.
Men are also ever-present, either orbiting the women as satellites or exerting a gravitational pull themselves, perpetuating and supporting a system that prevents the women from flying as high as they could. Support the Girls doesn’t shy away from exploring gender and sexual politics in America, but it is never pedantic or polemical about these topics. “Do they grab you?” asks one of the potential new hires early in the film, and although Support the Girls doesn’t have an answer to the problem of imposed masculine power, it deftly explores the intricacies of that power. Lisa proposes that their restaurant is wholesome and “mainstream,” while later Maci explains how she always smiles with her teeth slightly separated because it generates better tips. The women of Double Whammies are wading through complex waters: subject to the leering eyes and groping hands of men, while working out how to use such invasions to their benefit.
With this, it’s hard not to think about Support the Girls in the context of American politics and the culture that propelled Donald Trump into the White House. In fact, the film is an impressively concise portrait of the United States during these turbulent times, as well as a celebration of the empathy and decisiveness required to navigate such an era. Besides taking place in one of the reddest of red states, the film is slyly ripe with overtones about race and sexuality. Orange Is the New Black’s Lea DeLaria plays the restaurant’s most loyal customer, the masculine-presenting lesbian Bobo, who near the end of the films starts a physical altercation in defense of the off-the-rails servers.
Lisa, Danyelle, and Nika (Nicole Onyeje) are the only people of color working the front of the house. Danyelle makes a point that Lisa isn’t allowed to schedule her and Nika during the same shifts because the white conservative owner, played with smarmy machismo by James LeGros, forbids it. Lisa is forced to fire white server Krista (AJ Michalka) after she gets a tattoo of black basketball star Steph Curry on her side — and has to explain exactly why that’s an issue. The kitchen, however, is largely staffed by people of color. When Lisa identifies the cousin of her fry cook, Arturo, as the vent-trapped burglar, she asks him to resign, but acknowledges the day-to-day strife they endure by refusing to get the police involved. “I do my best to be generous,” she says, to which he replies, “You’re always generous.” She still asks him to finish his shift, however, given that she’s short-handed.
Moments like these uphold early reactions to the film as a kind of continuation of the late Jonathan Demme's output, a filmmaker whose features reverberate with the joy and pain of being human. It also recalls the work of the Dardennes — Bujalski’s film can be thought of as Two Days, One Night (2014) by way of the best of the American The Office (2005-13) — in exploring complex notions of work, morality, and ethics, all while being simultaneously gut-busting and tear-inducing. The film eventually and inevitably devolves — nay, evolves — into Hawksian screwball comedy when the workers of Double Whammies stage a coup during the restaurant’s proverbial Big Night, here corresponding to a pay-per-view boxing match. It’s an exhilarating act of self-reclamation that, on the outside, may seem like the smallest of rebellions. However, for these women who center their lives on their work, well-being, and makeshift family, it’s a daring and necessary act.
The cast is roundly magical, with supporting work from the likes of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Dylan Gelula, who portrays one of the more enterprising potential new hires with deadpan self-seriousness. At the center of the film, however, are three spectacularly alive performances: Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, and Shayna McHayle (also known by her rapper stage name Junglepussy). Richardson is effervescent, radiating an energy completely opposite to her tremendous, more downplayed turn at the heart of kogonada’s Columbus (2017). McHayle’s strutting, gives-no-fucks attitude — walked back when it becomes necessary to give at least some — lends the film some of its finest moments of feminine clapbacks. And as everyone’s mother, best friend, boss, and mentor, Hall bests her Girls Trip (2017) performance, showcasing the role’s heartbreak and humor while doubling down on Lisa’s optimism and resignation. Her turn is an easy contender for the most magnetic of the year, and just one of the myriad reasons Support the Girls is one of the year’s best films.