Starting in the mid-2000s, the Mumblecore movement was seen by critics as the future of American independent cinema. Its films were made on shoestring budgets, emphasizing dialogue and character relationships above plot. Some of Mumblecore’s most influential figures have risen to considerable fame in the years since the movement’s peak (Joe Swanberg, Greta Gerwig, the Duplass brothers), but director Andrew Bujalski remains one of its most critically acclaimed. He helped define the cinematic language of Mumblecore with his 2002 film “Funny Ha Ha,” and he continues to improve upon it with his latest film, “Support the Girls,” which paints an empathetic portrait of working class life with shades of gentle humor and pathos.
Lisa (Regina Hall) is the manager of the Houston-based restaurant Double Whammies, a tongue-in-cheek riff on the popular chain Hooters. She dedicates herself to providing a safe workplace for her staff, bending over backwards to support them in their personal endeavors. Her closest companions are two long-time waitresses — the seriously reliable Danyelle (Shayna McHale) and impossibly cheery Maci (Haley Lu Richardson). The three spearhead a campaign to hire a fresh-faced waitstaff, but things go from bad to worse. A young man gets trapped in the ventilation shaft, customers start to cause trouble and the televisions stop working. To top it off, one of the restaurant’s waitresses, Shaina (Jana Kramer), lands herself in legal trouble, so the crew must find a way to raise money for her lawyer. Faced with her boss Cubby’s (James Le Gros) waning patience and the looming threat of a corporate buyout, Lisa, who risks losing her job, has only one day to sort everything out.
Taking place in a “day-in-the-life” structure, “Support the Girls” makes for a refreshingly low-key 90 minutes. Bujalski’s approach is one of comic understatement, but this soft-spoken approach makes the film’s tragic moments more impactful. All of the fires that Lisa must put out are, in effect, the film’s comic set pieces. They never drag on, exploding and dissipating in a flash. Many of the film’s jokes take place offscreen, only occurring to the audience through hilariously deadpan remarks between the characters. In this sense, it’s just another day of mischief and frustration. Without explicitly doing so, Bujalski beautifully conjures an entire world within Double Whammies, one of familiar places and faces. His camera never fails to capture as much space as possible, and this is especially true of the restaurant itself. We experience every nook and cranny of the establishment as well as the ways in which Lisa and company interact with the space.
Since “Support the Girls” is such a character-driven film, the ensemble is as much a triumph as Bujalski’s filmmaking. Hall takes the lead, and it’s one of her best performances to date. Lisa’s body carries the weight of the world as so many people depend on her. She’s visibly tired but stays strong, and the moments in which she cracks under pressure are devastating. Richardson, a stunning new talent in the current indie scene, brings a bubbly charm to Maci. Among the supporting cast, McHale is the true discovery in her first feature film role. Her Danyelle is a right-hand woman to Lisa, and she’s a no-nonsense leader in her boss’ absence. Even background characters are fully sketched out, and the vibrant community of Houston, one of the most diverse cities in the country, is represented in Bujalski’s casting choices.
“Support the Girls” is a light package on the surface, but all of these features make it something richer at heart, something masterfully Hawksian in its commentary on American vocationalism. In the film, work is a source of unfairness, a never-ending cascade of small-scale tribulations that add up to a Herculean feat of endurance. But Bujalski’s characters need it to survive, and they can only transcend the expectations put upon them as a collective body of support.
There are few male characters among the cast, and most of them serve as arbiters of conflict. Cubby and his cohorts completely misunderstand the girls that work for them and can only react angrily when they rebel. Troublesome customers are petty men, annoyed that they are not entitled to the waitresses that serve their food, completely devoid of empathy for them. But Lisa understands the girls, and they understand each other. Bujalski’s attention to this gender dynamic, one literally embodied by Double Whammies as an institution, intersects with his critique of class and labor — one that sits at the heart of American culture.
Despite this subtle approach, keeping with Bujalski’s style, “Support the Girls” ends with a bang. Facing conglomeration head-on, Lisa and her girls let out a cathartic scream. It isn’t out of fear or hurt, but out of exhaustion. Bujalski brings the primal growl of a Bruce Springsteen tune to the film’s sensitivity and, without words, sums up so much about labor in America, the spaces it inhabits and the lives it claims on a daily basis. It’s a perfect end to an extraordinary film, one that explores, with a tongue piercing its cheek, how we are crushed under the weight of work. But together, shouting into the void, we can stand to bear it a little longer.