A film not about enduring the humiliations of labor and irritations of co-workers but of the invigorating, even radical prospect of finding common cause with one’s peers.
Andrew Bujalski’s cinema has from the start been predicated on a level of empathy bordering on the sociological, with the director’s sense of observation so keen that he subtly maps out entire systems of behavior and perspective in films that rarely stretch past 100 minutes. Even his recent foray into more mainstream indie filmmaking has carry over this method from his microbudget days; Results was so precise in its explication of character that the sort of plot details that would normally be seen as forced disruptions (like Cobie Smulders’s trainer briefly showing interest in Kevin Corrigan’s slothful vulgarian) were perfectly justifiable character decisions.
Support the Girls finds Bujalski working further in this vein of more legitimized, studio-backed independent work, and he chooses for the film’s setting a Hooters-esque sports bar where young women must contend with leering customers for their tips. The film is centered on Lisa (Regina Hall), the restaurant’s manager, who opens the film by holding group interviews with prospective employees. Lisa has the practiced smile of a woman used to a lifetime of service work, and she talks to the potential new hires with a mix of friendly reassurance and subtly clarified authority. Flanked by employee Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), Lisa acknowledges both the setbacks and perks of the job, noting that sexual harassment by customers is not permitted while also resignedly, circumspectly admitting that some level of lechery has to be endured for tips.
Lisa’s demeanor immediately marks this as a workplace comedy outside the subgenre’s usual schematics. Workplace humor tends to spotlight the manager’s explicit role as a hindrance, a figure who effectively passes down the will of the true boss while preventing two-way communication from employees. Typically, these managers are incompetent and alienated, enjoying none of the real authority of executive office while displaying egotistical power plays over underlings. Lisa, however, is both thoroughly competent and eminently approachable. Upon arriving at work at the start of the film, Lisa discovers that a member of the kitchen staff has gotten stuck in the ceiling while attempting to pull off an after-hours heist of the office vault. Lisa calmly calls the cops (who pointedly insist she call the owner rather than dealing with her) but otherwise displays empathy for the worker. Lisa works the hardest of anyone at the restaurant, not only in the usual day-to-day tasks but in the spiraling madness that erupts from this particular shift, in which she must deal with the would-be robber knocking out the bar’s cable prior to an MMA pay-per-view, as well as running an ad-hoc car wash fundraiser to collect cash for the hospital bills of a worker, Shaina (Jana Kramer), who fought back against her abusive boyfriend and put him in the emergency room. Lisa runs herself so ragged within the first 30 minutes that when she gets a brief moment to sit on a curb outside and gets distracted watching birds, her brief respite emanates a wave of relief and calm before she must get back to juggling her tasks.
With Hall playing the collected straight woman, it falls to the rest of the cast to act out eccentricities, which they do with comic broadness that nonetheless is grounded in their characters. Richardson epitomizes this, playing Maci as young and playful but never air-headed. In an early scene where Lisa describes the job for new recruits, Maci pipes in occasionally to counter some of Lisa’s rosier spins on the gig, as when she adds a qualifier to her boss’s statement that they get great tips. Yet Maci does not do this out of sarcasm or world weariness but a kind of guilelessness that has looped around into blunt honesty. Elsewhere, Maci is a model employee, less in the sense of satisfying customers than in her constant demonstration to co-workers of the job’s delicate balancing act, in which she can instantaneously compartmentalize the lechery of men and put up defenses of a wide smile. When Maci cheerfully describes her personal set of standards for just where and how much she will let a customer touch her before the promise of a good tip is no longer worth it, it’s one of the most succinct depictions ever put to film of the total degradation of a late capitalism that requires personal boundaries be constantly violated by the demands of work.
Such carefully threaded character comedy builds a foundation on which Bujalski can pile the occasional lapse into farce. This can include parting shots like a bit where some of the women doing the car wash get too caught up in the implications of the event and begin rubbing down cars with their bodies as a panicking Lisa screams about this being a family restaurant. It also extends to far more elaborate sequences, as when Lisa’s boss, Cubby (James Le Gros), decides to take out his frustrations over the restaurant on her and forces her to ride to the bank with him to deposit the cash for her unapproved fundraiser. Along the way, Cubby defends his policy of only having one woman of color on each shift as a roundabout show of diversity (if all the non-white women ended up together, the other shifts would be all-white) and belligerently chases a man who cuts him off in traffic, a tense show of aggression that ends with a tragicomic display of impotence.
These momentary flights into broader comedy never drift too far from the reactions that each situation prompts in Lisa, who proves she can maintain her composure no matter the stresses of her professional or personal life. That level of emotional control is paradoxically most clearly seen in her absence when Cubby attempts to run the restaurant without her and is faced not only with the burden of actual labor but a tacit, minor coup by the rest of the staff, whose initial flailing gradually becomes of show of solidarity. Support the Girls thus becomes a rarity in American comedy, a film not about enduring the humiliations of labor and irritations of co-workers but of the invigorating, even radical prospect of finding common cause with one’s peers, all the better to stick it to those secure in their sense of authority.