'Support the Girls': Film Review | SXSW 2018

An easygoing comedy that lives its politics instead of declaring them.

Andrew Bujalski's latest focuses on sisterhood among the waitresses at a Hooters-like bar.

SXSW film honcho Janet Pierson is justifiably proud of the number of SXSW 2018 films directed by women. But this year's program also reminds us that progress isn't only about statistics, as one of its most convincing visions of sisterhood was written and directed by a man. Andrew Bujalski's Support the Girls, an ensemble comedy that doubles as an excellent vehicle for Regina Hall, finds feminist solidarity in the unlikeliest of places: a cleavage-and-cutoffs sports bar called Double Whammies. An easygoing hangout film that will ring true for anyone who has worked in the service industry, it continues the filmmaker's streak of making movies that have few obvious common denominators besides empathy for types of characters who rarely get it.

Hall plays Lisa, who as Double Whammies' manager is the only woman on the floor who gets to wear actual clothing. As she conducts a morning orientation with some new potential hires, Lisa both reveals the ways she has internalized the bar's rationalizations — despite the skimpy uniforms, this is "a family place," she claims, where customers come "so some sweet girls can take good care of them" — and makes it clear she won't tolerate harassment. She assures the newbies that she has no problem calling the cops, and shortly into the shift, gets to demonstrate her "zero tolerance policy" for customers who insult their servers.

As Bujalski's script observes (without commentary) how nearly everyone in this environment is exploiting someone in some way, it introduces several stresses for Lisa that have nothing to do with leering customers. The club's owner Cubby (James Le Gros) wants to fire her, despite her obvious competence; a member of the kitchen staff has tried to engineer a robbery (something she handles with a surprising mix of sympathy and pragmatism); and one of the waitresses is in trouble after hitting an abusive boyfriend with her car.

A woman trying to do the right thing in a lot of bad situations, Lisa is motivated not just by her own need to pay the rent, but by loyalty to the younger women around her — especially Danielle (newcomer Shayna McHayle, who makes music under the moniker Junglepussy), an unflappable vet who knows the place about as well as Lisa; and Maci (Hailey Lu Richardson), a cheery kid who quietly ignores house rules about physical contact with customers. The staff's we-get-it balance of flirtation with respect is threatened by newcomer Jennelle (Dylan Gelula), who's eager to sleaze things up creatively if it means more business.

No workplace is so crummy that it can't feel like home with the right people around you, and the castmembers (including a couple of actors playing regular customers) create an agreeable sense of place that explains why Lisa would feel such a responsibility to stay. Similarly, Hall's one-on-one scenes with Le Gros benefit from performances that suggest a backstory beyond what's spelled out in dialogue. As this day-in-the-life progresses, Bujalski offers confrontations that threaten to turn quite dark; but this is a day designed to exasperate, not destroy, its heroine.

As the mood at Double Whammies inches toward "take this job and shove it," some viewers may feel a spiritual kinship between Support the Girls and a workplace comedy shot not far away from its Austin locations, Office Space. But this film never embraces that one's acting-out fantasies, and it understands some hard realities about its protagonists' lives. While they may quit or get themselves fired, they're most likely to get work at the Mancave down the highway — a fast-growing chain where exploitation of women is efficient and standardized. Lisa could easily get on a management track there and make more money by treating employees like disposable bimbos. Hall makes that seem unlikely; but Bujalski won't be in a rush to judge Lisa if that's what she feels she has to do.

Production companies: Burn Later Productions, Houston King Productions
Distributor: Magnolia
Cast: Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, Shayna McHayle, James LeGros, Dylan Gelula, AJ Michalka, Brooklyn Decker, Jana Kramer, John Elvis, Lea DeLaria
Director-screenwriter: Andrew Bujalski
Producers: Houston King, Sam Slater
Executive producers: Jonathan Fryd, Scott Carmel, Paul Bernon, David Bernon, Susan Kirr
Director of photography: Matthias Grunsky
Production designer: Jake Kuykendall
Costume designer: Colin Wilkes
Editor: Karen Skloss
Casting directors: Toni Cobb Brock, Sally Allen
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)

91 minutes