Lisa Conroy (Regina Hall) has had a very long, very difficult day. Last night she had to bail one of her servers out of jail after she accidentally hit her boyfriend with her car. This morning she’s interviewed several new hires, given them preliminary training, and organized an impromptu car wash to raise funds for the boyfriend’s medical costs. She’s had to find a sitter for the sick son of her best server Danyelle (Shayna McHale), trick a techie at a nearby electronics store into fixing their TV set-up, fire one of her chefs for being associated with a robbery, fire another server for getting an inappropriate tattoo, and fend off the fury of Cubby (James Le Gros), the imperious, no-nonsense owner of their Double Whammies franchise—a sports bar “with curves” that specializes in the three B’s: boobs, brews, and big screens. A huge pay-per-view fight is scheduled later that night, the TVs still don’t work, the customers won’t stop harassing her servers, and to top it all off, there appears to be a burglar stuck in the A/C ducts. Yes, Lisa Conroy has had a very long, very difficult day and it’s still only the early afternoon.
Lisa Conroy is the beating heart of Support the Girls, the latest film by Andrew Bujalski, the director whose spontaneous naturalism and lo-fi aesthetics have led to his being labeled the “Godfather or Mumblecore.” Despite the moniker there’s little sense of relaxed casualness or DIY messiness here in Bujalski’s warm celebration of feminine solidarity in the face of economic desperation—he meticulously constructs his narrative with the precision of a focused storyteller as Lisa’s impossible day spirals out of control. Like the doomed heroes of classical tragedies, Lisa is burdened with a fatal flaw: an incessant, uncontrollable need to help, support, and love everyone around her, especially those who don’t or can’t deserve it. Most of these unfortunates are the girls she takes under her wing at Double Whammies—usually twenty-something college girls in need of money or direction in life. Some like the perpetually over-eager Maci (Haley Lu Richardson) take their enthusiasm too far, either by flirting too much with the male customers or getting overexcited with the confetti cannon. Others like the Machiavellian marketing major Jennelle (Dylan Gelula) forget that Double Whammies is supposed to be a “family establishment” and demonstrates no qualms with being too racy if it means better tips. Even the laconic Danyelle only stays at the job out of personal loyalty to Lisa. When she asks Danyelle is she’s happy working there, she responds “I like working with you.”
That’s the key to Support the Girls—it’s one of the rare films not just about female friendships, but about how said friendships are what keep these women motivated and functioning in an oppressive misogynist society. Double Whammies is an ingenious microcosm of all of the petty indignities and gross abuses women are forced to face in a male-driven capitalist system: verbal degradation, physical assault, sexual objectification. There are many muttered mentions of how Cubby uses legal loopholes to dodge fair hiring practices that would force him to employ fat women and his blatantly racist scheduling system which ensures only one black server can work the floor at any given time. Any questions of why these women don’t just quit and work somewhere else are immaterial (although a scene showing dozens and dozens of beautiful women lined up to interview for the same demeaning job at a rival establishment reminds us that in this economy even sleazy breastaurant gigs can be impossible to come by)—this is the everyday reality of millions of women both in America and around the world. A prestigious law office, a cushy corporate job, a high-powered elected position…all of these can be Double Whammies.
Yet what keeps these women going? Each other: their love, their encouragement, their self-sacrifice, their tireless optimism in themselves even when there’s nothing to be optimistic about. There have been several high-profile American indies in the past couple of years focused on outsiders struggling on the economic margins of society which argue that the innate goodness and compassion of the lower classes does more to keep their people afloat than any failing or nonexistent social safety net, sentiments which echo the 1930s and 40s populist cinema of Frank Capra and John Ford. Many of them like Chloé Zhao’s The Rider (2017), Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017), and Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace (2018) focus primarily on children and young people coming of age. But Support the Girls has more in common with Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson (2016) in their depiction of adults who’ve come to terms with and settled into the realities of working class drudgery. But whereas Paterson imagined a gentle-souled proletariat that transcended race, gender, and nationality, Support the Girls is much more sober and realistic in its laser-like focus on women. The servers at Double Whammies are defined and restricted by their race, their gender, their poverty. Yet when they put on their push-up bras and short shorts, smile and high five each other in the break room, gossip about baby-sitters and baby-daddies, and scheme of how to make a few extra bucks for medical care behind Cubby’s back, they’re never more empowered, more united, more loved.