‘Served Like a Girl’: Film Review | SXSW 2017

You couldn’t ask for better company.

Lysa Heslov’s directing debut profiles organizers and contestants of the Ms. Veteran America contest, an awareness- and fund-raising event for homeless female vets.

Glamorous gowns are definitely involved, and yes, there’s a talent contest, but the Ms. Veteran America competition is no beauty pageant in the conventional sense. The gutsy women who vie for the title come in all shapes and sizes. They’ve served in Afghanistan and Iraq, some have suffered dire injuries, and they’ve all weathered plenty on the home front as well. The participants profiled in Lysa Heslov’s documentary are the epitome of resilience, but they’re also disarmingly honest and funny as hell. In a word, they’re irresistible. 

Focusing on seven women involved in the 2015 competition (the fourth edition of the event), Served Like a Girl takes a while to find its groove, but as it sheds light on these women’s experiences and the larger issue of homelessness among female vets, the film grows deeply engaging. Whatever the perceived or real political and social divisions between military families and the rest of us, this rousing nonfiction feature by Heslov, a producer making her directorial debut, suggests there’s far more common ground than many might suspect. 

At the heart of the film, and the raison d’être for the MVA shindig in Las Vegas, is the shameful lack of programs for female veterans who face challenges transitioning to civilian life. Competition founder Jaspen Boothe, a formidable advocate for homeless female veterans through her Final Salute nonprofit, began her crusade after she found herself “discharged into the street,” her Army service over and her cancer treatments concluded. 

Heslov zeroes in on four contestants, a former competitor serving as co-host, and Denyse Gordon, the inaugural title holder who directs the event. The helmer and her editors err on the side of too much setup, and the early sections of the film could stand considerable tightening; there’s no need to see Boothe and Gordon making the same congratulatory video call to a handful of the 25 finalists. 

But as the doc takes us from the auditions to the contest itself, the interviews and fly-on-the-wall sequences with the central figures are time well spent. Military outfits notwithstanding, there’s nothing uniform about them. They include a Harley-riding mechanic, a former Redskins cheerleader and a ’40s-style pinup model. Some come from military families, others shocked their relatives when they enlisted. One is dealing with chronic illness; another presses on, with gusto, after losing her lower legs in an IED explosion. Most of them have made life-and-death decisions in the midst of war zones; for these veterans, the 2013 policy change that officially permitted women in combat is a cruel joke. 

While it goes a considerable way to correct misconceptions about female soldiers’ frontline roles, Served Like a Girl never loses sight of its working-class heroines’ day-to-day struggles on home turf. It makes clear that a sharp sense of humor is as essential as their serious resolve. Their wisecracks and gleefully self-deprecating anecdotes (vibrators were designated as contraband) are as crucial to the film as their painful recollections of traumatic events. 

Whether they’re getting their girlie on at a gown shop or fielding the judges’ interview questions (there are no softballs), Heslov’s affection for her subjects is evident. Rita Baghdadi’s camerawork captures it all, including a particularly emotional mother-daughter reunion, with unfussy intimacy. The notes of tireless strength and energetic self-expression carry through the film’s final moments, when a song teaming Pat Benatar and Linda Perry plays over the closing credits. 

Crucially, the doc reveals how the competitors inspire and support one another. One contestant’s openness about the sexual assaults she suffered while in the military give another former soldier the strength to address attacks she went through decades earlier. And thanks to the efforts of her fellow vets, Marissa Strock, the woman who survived an IED, gets new prostheses that enable her to wear the stylish shoes of her fashion dreams. Sparkly high heels have never meant so much.

Production companies: A Pop Smoke production in association with the Lagralane Group, Chicago Media Project, Community Films
With: Jaspen Boothe, Denyse Gordon, Nichole Alred, Hope Garcia, Rachel Engler, Andrea Waterbury, Marissa Strock
Director: Lysa Heslov
Screenwriters: Lysa Heslov, Tchavdar Georgiev
Producers: Lysa Heslov, Seth Gordon, Linda Perry
Executive producers: Jason Delane Lee, Yvonne Huff Lee, Kym Gold, Marlon Young, Kari Wagner, Brenda Robinson
Director of photography: Rita Baghdadi
Editors: Tchavdar Georgiev, Bridget Arnet, Monique Zavistovski
Composer: Michael Levine
Venue: South by Southwest (Documentary Feature Competition)
Sales: Preferred Content

93 minutes