In ‘Support the Girls,’ women call — and pour — the shots
Double Whammies, the bar, is the type of place where “Big Ass” can be conjugated as a verb. At this Texas Hooters-like sports bar, “Can I big ass that?” means “Can I pour you an even larger, even paler tankard of whatever swill-flavored hops you’re drinking?” This is the setting for “Support the Girls,” a real-life almost-comedy, written and directed by Andrew Bujalski (“Results,” “Computer Chess”). It follows a day in the life of Lisa, played expertly by a simmering Regina Hall, the Whammies manager.
The film, which has no score, is a searing portrait of women stuck on the martyr-wheel daily grind. The staccato soundtrack cuts between car washes and kitchens, with crashing waves of tires from the multi-lane Texas highway offering some of the only sonic solace.
In less adroit hands, “Support the Girls” would exhaust rather than elate, as each new scene piles three new tasks onto an ever-expanding list. The film opens with Lisa crying careful, makeup-preserving tears in her car. At work, she’s got a guy stuck in her ceiling after he tried to rob the place. She’s got no cable for the big game that night and she’s got to sign on a new apartment, despite her failing marriage. On top of that, she’s running a flirty car wash to help one of the girls with bills.
It’s not all smiles and froth at Whammies, as she turns the place into a pseudo-matriarchy where women are believed and men cannot get away with bad behavior. Instead of sinking to the level of surly, porked-out customers, Lisa demands respect for and from her girls as she suspender-hoists her smile with each new exchange.
(That is, until she quits in a triumphal march out the door. After she leaves, Dionysus reigns as nipples poke out of brightly colored bras, brawls erupt, and customers get playfully spanked on the bar.)
Herein lies the quiet magic of “Support the Girls” — the reason to see it, the reason that keeps it coming back from the recesses of a reviewer’s psyche: Lisa is kind. That’s the secret, the reason the film is a little diamond.
The joy is watching Lisa stand sturdy before the torrent of the mundane, meeting each challenge with a square-shouldered smile. In Hall’s capable hands, Lisa’s kindness — built on shifting, shaking frustration — becomes, itself, radical. When a burly customer insults one of her waitresses, she stands next to his table and firmly insists he leave. When she prepares for her triumphant walk-out, she slaps dinky heart stickers on door frames and filing cabinets. Kindness requires wisdom, the old saying goes, and Hall plays Lisa as a character able to give the rare gift of undivided attention.
Because she is kind, she is complicated, a character who transcends racial stereotypes of black women on film and refuses to be either a Mammy (emotional Teflon) or an Angry Black Woman (emotional barbed wire). Most obviously, she is only allowed to have as a waitress one other woman of color per shift, a choice the owner (played with expert ick by a grizzled James LeGros) brushes off. Yet in playing her character with irrational, revolutionary kindness, Hall complicates the racist trope of a black woman character who is on screen only to help white people make their lives easier.
She allows space for the chirping chorus of Whammies girls to create their own personalities in a bar that wants them to be little more than breasts and burbling laughter. Danyelle (Shayna McHayle, otherwise known as hip-hop sensation Junglepussy), is Lisa’s deadpan confidante and co-conspirator, the only other black woman on staff that day. Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), is the quarterback of vibes, her wide-mouthed smile biting down on her Southern belle charm. Their cameos crop up as background and relief, real people in this real world.
As Bujalski insists and Hall maintains, the sheroes of the world do not get their own symphonies. There’s no romanticism in this Texas nowhere, none at all. Lisa just does it, whatever “it” may be. But sometimes, with a bottle of stolen whiskey on the roof, she can close her eyes, lean back on her purse, and pretend the cars rushing by are waves from the ocean. And through her blue-ridged eyelids, our empress beholds the swelling scene below.
★ ★ ★ ½
SUPPORT THE GIRLS
Written and directed by Andrew Bujalski. Starring Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, Shayna McHayle, James LeGros. At Kendall Square. 90 minutes. R (language, including sexual references, and brief nudity).