The new workplace comedy Support the Girls might look like Office Space or Waiting. It is set in a deliberately generic sports bar, one where the staff – mostly women – do not get the respect they deserve. The staff have some cheeky hijinks, and the restaurant’s regulars are minor characters. The ambition and scope of this film, however, is anything but typical. It is written and directed by Andrew Bujalski, a director who helped start the “mumblecore” movement and has since become a chronicler of working classic indignities. Support the Girls continuously upends expectations of where it will go, until it becomes a comedy of specific, deep empathy.
The course of the film is one particularly rough workday. Lisa (Regina Hall) is the manager, and when we first see her, she is crying alone in her car. While we do learn the precise source of her frustration, she might as well be reacting to everything in her life. Still, Lisa puts on a brave face, and we learn she is a nurturing woman who tries and to do goof for her employees, particularly the servers. At this point, I should mention that this restaurant is like Hooters: every server is an attractive young woman, with their midriff exposed and low cut shirts. When Lisa trains potential new servers, she is upfront about the limits of what customer behavior they should tolerate.
Lisa’s most reliable server is Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), whose endless positivity is downright heroic, and while Danyelle (Junglepussy) has problems of her own, she recognizes Lisa’s incredible efforts to keep the restaurant afloat. Two major obstacles get in her way: the laconic owner Cubby (James Le Gros), and that the TVs do not work. That second problem would be a disaster in any sports bar, but tonight also happens to be the night of a major boxing match.
Bujalski’s approach seems simple – he lets the characters keep talking, well past when an ordinary scene would end – and follows them down whatever road they want, so each scene has an organic, spontaneous feel to it. Support the Girls is also unruly, sort of like the films of Robert Altman and John Cassavettes. This creates freedom for the actors, in no small part because the characters are fully flushed individuals. For a long stretch, Bujalski just follows Lisa around, giving a sense of how many plates she juggles, as her employees and customers drift in and out of view. It is a dizzying effect, with the bar feeling like a prison, except Bujalski relaxes his grip and we see how everyone depends on Lisa. Some scenes are downright uncomfortable, like when Cubby takes Lisa for a long ride, and that only cements her herculean efforts.
Support the Girls is indeed funny, and its humor is borne out of the incongruity between everyone’s personality and what their job requires of them. Sometimes Lisa gives an exacerbated look, improvising through one calamity after another (Hall has never been better), while there are other times Danyelle serves as a wry, experienced sounding board. Still, the most memorable performance belongs to Richardson. You may recognize her from Edge of Seventeen, or last year’s excellent two-hander Columbus. As Maci, she is an absolute joy to behold: there is a scene where she bursts into the frame, setting off of a party popper for no reason other than she wants everyone to have fun. She is not just a good sport; she is a force of nature, with positivity as her unlikely weapon.
There is a subtext to Richardson’s performance, and all the others. No one deserves what happens to these workers, especially when the inevitable harassment arrives, and yet being a worker in American means gritting your teeth through all kinds of inane bullshit. Most of us are resigned to this experience, but Bujalski suggests that maybe we shouldn’t. In its form and message, Support the Girls is subversive. It also has one of the best final scenes of the year. After the long day is behind them, Lisa, Maci, and Danyelle finally have their moment of catharsis. They feel like individuals, they feel like a team (if only for a moment), and they deserve victory more than any muscled superhero automaton.