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.