Regina Hall’s new film ‘Support the Girls’ does just that — but without any cheap wokeness

In the new film Support the Girls, Regina Hall’s character Lisa Conroy is first seen crying in her car. Writer-director Andrew Bujalski doesn’t explain why she’s upset, but he emphasizes that it’s how she’s beginning her day: He films Hall in close-up as she’s literally trying to push tears back into her eyes so they won’t smear her makeup. She soon has to go to work and face a litany of responsibilities as a restaurant manager, including chaperoning new applicants, running a fundraiser and removing a thief stuck in the air vents. Crying isn’t a luxury she can afford right now.

A plotless slice-of-life portrait crossed with a quasi-mainstream comedy, Support the Girls follows an ensemble of working-class women during a not-so-average day at a locally owned Hooters-esque restaurant Double Whammies, located right off of a suburban Texas highway. Every day at Double Whammies, employees are expected to look good, serve food and beer, and flirt with the customers. Meanwhile, Lisa watches over the place and tries to keep the peace the best she can. It’s a deceptively simple job that contains a whole host of difficulties built into it.

Opening in select theaters on Friday, Support the Girls possesses an intimate scale and digressive structure that neatly belies its ambition, which is to indirectly examine an apathetic late-capitalist professional environment from the perspective of its workers. Bujalski’s interests primarily lie in the women who are moving through their day-to-day and the urgent pressures they face, but he goes to great lengths to characterize the everyday shittiness of Double Whammies.

They profit off of the casual sexism of their clientele, who are looking to leer as much as eat middling fried food. They explicitly hire “entertainers” instead of “waitresses” so they can discriminate based on looks. The restaurant’s owner (James LeGros) doesn’t allow more than one black girl on any given shift for racist-cum-financial reasons. There’s brief talk about rating employees on their weight and attitude in order to increase efficiency. Despite Lisa’s persistently positive spin on the workplace (she refers to it as a “mainstream family place,” even though the employees are scantily clad), it’s not exactly the safest, most inviting space on Earth.

But Bujalski wisely refuses to linger on the offensive details of the establishment; they’re just the unremarkable facts of this particular world. In fact, Support the Girls’ power derives from its choice to scrutinize Double Whammies’ toxic atmosphere without offering anything resembling a solution. The film’s mosaic-like approach necessarily bypasses cheap empowerment platitudes while still retaining a permanent sense of frustration toward the status quo.

Bujalski is refreshingly disinterested in parroting woke talking points about “the way we live now” or scoring progressive points on the back of the film’s diverse cast. Instead, he non-judgmentally depicts the practical realities of working in a public-facing business that exploits women and is defined by moral and ethical grey areas. Are Double Whammies employees supposed to flirt with a nearby home theater salesman so he can fix the restaurant’s speaker system? No, but there are orders to be filled and tips to be made, and more importantly, there’s no time to ask questions.

It’s the women themselves who provide the support that the institution fails to deliver. An anomalous figure in any workplace, Lisa is a genuinely caring manager who watches out for every one of her girls, no matter what the situation. She risks her job to raise legal funds for an employee who hit her abusive boyfriend with a car; she arranges a babysitter for another employee’s sick son; and she chooses not to rat out a cash-strapped cook who planned a poorly executed heist of the restaurant’s safe.

She’s aided by the ebullient Maci (Haley Lu Richardson) and the cynical Danyelle (rapper Junglepussy), both of whom do what they can to liven up a world in which every interaction with a customer is mediated by carefully fabricated sexual tension. But Lisa is a boss, which means she inevitably carries the job’s heaviest burdens alone.

‘Support the Girls’ is out in select theaters on Friday, Aug. 24.Magnolia Pictures/IMDb

Hall gives one of the best performances of the year, imbuing Lisa with the patience and compassion of a saint, but Bujalski crucially juxtaposes her generous spirit with the myriad frustrations inherent to working at a place like Double Whammies. Lisa adopts a positive attitude because she’s working in customer service, but her attitude can’t fix what’s fundamentally wrong with her work situation. She regularly faces unpleasant treatment from her boss, she obviously does the work of at least three people but only makes the salary of one and, on top of that, her home life has fallen apart. Even her attempt to brighten the walls of Double Whammies with heart-shaped stickers are stymied by management, who unceremoniously rip them off when she’s gone.

However, it’s telling that Bujalski negatively contrasts Double Whammies with their corporate rivals the Man Cave, a national chain that offers a bigger, shinier version of the same experience. Double Whammies may be a crappy job, but it’s still locally owned and doesn’t try to reduce hospitality to bare essentials that can be found in a simplistic training manual. At least Double Whammies has someone like Lisa looking out for right or wrong. “Do you like working here?” Lisa seriously asks Danyelle at one point. “I like working with you,” Danyelle responds. Her reply underscores Support the Girls’ nuanced worldview: Institutions won’t save you, but the people around you might help the time pass faster.

In a year when film releases have desperately tried to keep up with the cultural demands of on- and off-screen representation, Support the Girls stands as a powerful antidote to empty rhetoric that panders rather than illuminates. It doesn’t try to sell the idea that everything will be okay — at one point, a character explicitly argues against that pernicious line of reasoning because, well, what if everything won’t be okay? — nor does it marinate in the hopelessness of the characters’ shared situation.

Bujalski illustrates that internal contradictions are our only guiding force in an unforgiving world. Generosity is worthwhile, but it won’t be appreciated in its time. Assholes and angels sit side-by-side at the same bar. Empowerment exists, but it only takes the form of eking out a modicum of dignity in an environment that all but precludes it.

Case in point: Support the Girls’ most crucial moment features Maci scaring Lisa with a friendly confetti bomb just as she’s giving the finger to a bird mid-flight out of impotent frustration. “You’re the best and we love you!” Maci screams in joy. Lisa catches her breath before returning to the endless grind. Warmth and pain aren’t discrete feelings — they share the same workspace.