Lisa Conroy (Regina Hall), the protagonist of Support the Girls, is the master of the thin smile, the deflected compliment, and the steely glare—in short, she is a middle manager. So she has to put up with the short temper of her idiotic boss, Cubby (James Le Gros), massage the growing pains that come with training a new cadre of hires, and maintain a low ebb of empathy and support for her employees at all times while still being their boss. It’d be a tough role to have in any workplace, but Andrew Bujalski’s new film is set in a Hooters-like restaurant called Double Whammies, where the hot pant–clad employees are denigrated the second they walk in the door.
This suffocating environment is populated with customers who range from presumptuously flirty to downright nasty, and that’s all on top of the injustices that are usually part and parcel with a job in the service industry. Bujalski’s brilliantly low-key film follows an unusual day in the life of Lisa and her employees. The story is anchored by an astonishingly natural turn from Hall, who communicates the years of Lisa’s emotional labor with every weary sigh, pregnant pause, and genuine show of affection for her co-workers.
Support the Girls is not a film that will benefit from overhype. It’s a comedy without any belly laughs, and its charm lies in its quietest moments, much like with Bujalski’s last (also excellent) film, Results, which followed a languid romance between two personal trainers. But Support the Girls is an even more complete work, a story not just of workers but of a workplace; it has a profound sense of the space Lisa and her waitresses have to navigate, and of the quiet aggressions that lurk around every corner.
Bujalski, once dubbed the father of the hyper-indie “mumblecore” cinema movement of the 2000s, has become one of America’s most interesting and adaptive filmmakers. He’s someone who still works within low budgets, but he tells stories that go beyond the talky, collegial relationship dramas of that subgenre. Bujalski harnesses the naturalism of his early movies such as Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, but his visuals now have far more rigor to them. The camera in Support the Girls is intimate, often filling the frame with the faces of the Double Whammies’ waitresses, but the cinematographer Matthias Grunsky knows when to stand back and emphasize Lisa’s isolation, be it on the bare streets of the Texas suburbs or in the bleakly empty restaurant kitchen.
Lisa’s attachment to her girls runs deep, but she can be painfully managerial, referring back to poster slogans and striving to sand the edges off the harsher aspects of life. Viewers learn that one of her employees had a fight with her abusive boyfriend, and another was mixed up in an attempted robbery of the store. Both of those incidents play out offscreen, as does Lisa’s own personal drama (her relationship is also on the rocks). What the viewer sees is the aftermath, the difficult conversations that have to happen, and Lisa’s (sometimes strained) attempts at keeping everything on the straight and narrow.
Among the pitch-perfect ensemble around Hall is the bright young talent Haley Lu Richardson (The Edge of Seventeen, Columbus) as the bubbly, bighearted Maci, whose personality belies a flinty toughness. The rapper Junglepussy (in an outstanding acting debut) plays Danyelle, Lisa’s take-no-prisoners deputy. Dylan Gelula (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) is grimly funny as Jennelle, a new hire who quickly figures out the fastest way to make a killing on tips within the restaurant’s misogynistic, Darwinian infrastructure.
But Hall, a Hollywood veteran who has only recently begun getting the respect she’s long deserved, is the star of the show. Her work as the straitlaced buzzkill of last year’s smash hit Girls Trip was not just the best part of the movie, but also its emotional core (fantastic set pieces aside, that film doesn’t work without her big monologue at the end). In Support the Girls, she’s even better, underplaying the moments when the film threatens to become too obvious or self-righteous. Her deeply felt performance is the kind that too often gets ignored come awards season because of the lack of histrionics, but it’s intensely memorable nonetheless.
It’s difficult to make a work that confronts, or even acknowledges, the rusting but seemingly immovable structures of institutional sexism. It’s even harder to do that and address how race and class are inextricably bound up in those oppressive systems, and it’s even harder still to accomplish that without delivering a hectoring lecture to the audience. Support the Girls somehow manages to do it all, and in the form of a breezy, heartwarming workplace comedy to boot. There won’t be another film like it this year.