Andrew Bujalski’s Strip-Mall Realism

Andrew Bujalski’s Strip-Mall Realism

Look Around

Andrew Bujalski’s strip-mall realism.


A light-fingered, warmhearted comedy about coping with the intolerable, Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls takes place in and around a brews-and-boobs restaurant—I mean, a family-friendly entertainment business—called Double Whammies, located on a frontage road of Interstate 10 in south-central Texas. You’ve probably traveled along similar stretches of highway, though directors rarely bother to capture them as intensively as Bujalski does, filling the opening of the movie with views of looping ramps and overpasses, sunless arcades of sooty concrete, sextuple straightaways vibrating with a perpetual whoosh and rumble. You’ll probably recognize the strip-mall architecture, too, even if you’ve never turned into a one-story, faux-ranch establishment such as Double Whammies for a signature Big-Ass Beer and a precisely clocked three minutes of flirtation. Bujalski’s setting is the American ubiquitous; and his central character, bar manager Lisa (Regina Hall), might be termed the American overlooked, as one of countless working women who keep themselves and everyone around them going, and do so with a smile.

The only thing uncommon here is the plot—not in its incidents (which are as ordinary as a PBR) but its structure. Support the Girls is a rare house-of-cards movie. Watch the first inadvertent nudge. See the whole thing tumble.

Hints of instability begin with the film’s first human sound, which is Lisa’s sniffling as she sits in the Double Whammies parking lot, crying behind the wheel. Only after starting at a sudden rap on the car window—it’s a good-morning from Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), the waitress who will later be described as an angel sent to teach everyone about good attitude—does Lisa put on her professional grin and hop out, ready to march into a day’s work.

She has a platoon of new job applicants to stuff into pink T-shirts and try out (Double Whammies evidently being a business with a high turnover); the young son of an employee to shelter until a waitress from another shift can be recruited for child care; and a kitchen to inspect (discreetly, glancingly) for evidence of rats. There’s also an impromptu, not to say surreptitious, car wash to organize to raise funds for a waitress who was jailed the previous night, having decided to deal with an abusive boyfriend by aiming her car’s front fender at him. And then there’s that strange noise in the restaurant’s ceiling.

Upon investigation, the banging overhead turns out to be a would-be burglar trapped in an HVAC duct. He’s handled easily enough, the local cops being Double Whammies regulars. But the man’s extraction proves to be the push that destabilizes everything for Lisa, until she eventually breaks down in the women’s room in front of her closest workmate, Danyelle (Shayna McHayle)—breaks down laughing, that is. The alternative of screaming is still premature.

Bujalski, a stealthy filmmaker, develops these incidents in a style that’s easygoing on the surface, as suits his mundane though odd choice of milieu. (In previous films, he’s passed time in motel- and mall-based subcultures like computer-chess tournaments and fitness clubs.) Bujalski saves his punchiest image-making for the end—and even then, his strongest effects are not just understated but silent. Right before the climax, a series of wordless shots from Danyelle’s point of view tells you everything she won’t even bother to say about the men in Double Whammies and their notion of what’s not just permitted, but cool. At the stunning finale, you know instinctively that Lisa, Maci, and Danyelle are sensing their mortality, and their freedom, simply from the way they look up to the sky. Until reaching those high points, though, Bujalski tips you off to his art only when he cuts to the next shot a little before you anticipated it, or unexpectedly spikes a scene’s emotional pressure. He keeps knocking you off balance, gently, seemingly with no dire threat; but in the cumulative effect, you feel what it’s like to be a card slipping down in Lisa’s painstakingly constructed life.

Bujalski can make that collapse matter to you because Hall, as Lisa, is so solid. She’s used to being the anchor of ensemble casts—in Girls Trip, for example—and here again she plays straight woman to bouncy Richardson, fierce and forthright McHayle, and others like Lea DeLaria as the bar’s loyal, proudly butch customer, Bobo. All Hall has to do among these flightier characters is remain grounded (she’s dug into the Texas soil so well that when she requests something of a friend, she asks for a “fiver”); broadcast decency with the strength of a clear-channel station; and show, from the gut, how Lisa pulls herself back together after each new catastrophe. Which is to say, Hall does everything.

Have I mentioned, by the way, that I smiled almost nonstop through Support the Girls? I did that not because Bujalski was trying to be funny, or because it’s amusing to see homely, boozy, out-of-shape men judge the looks and character of young women, but out of pleasure at the warmth and mutual responsibility that Lisa shares with her workmates. Maybe some of them are no better than they ought to be—and yet together, in an unacknowledged combat zone off the roar of I-10, they have some real laughs behind those professional smiles. They make a life.

This column has put me in a retrospective mood, since it marks my 30th anniversary writing about films for The Nation. So it’s fortunate that I have a 40th anniversary to write about, and a series to peg it to. For the second half of September, the Metrograph theater in Manhattan is offering a birthday salute to the distributor Icarus Films, screening 56 titles that demonstrate a principle dear to both that company and me: the conviction that a movie can have strong social or political content and still do something interesting as film.

I had the good luck to write on just that theme for one of the first pictures I reviewed here, Marcel Ophüls’s Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie, and dozens of other films in the series implicitly make the same point. The Metrograph is showing, among others, Chris Marker’s epic (or perhaps encyclopedic, or maybe satiric) recent history of the global left, A Grin Without a Cat; Patricio Guzmán’s gorgeous meditation on astronomy and the collection of human remains, Nostalgia for the Light; Chantal Akerman’s magnificent, wordless journey into the regions of her unlived past, D’Est; Lynne Sachs’s almost tactile resurrection of the resistance to the Vietnam War, Investigation of a Flame; and, for those in a truly retrospective mood, Heddy Honigmann’s Forever, an infinitely touching documentary about the Père Lachaise cemetery and its visitors. If the Metrograph is far from you, please be aware that almost all of the films in the Icarus series are available on streaming services, making it possible for you, too, to look back, and look around.

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