It's the rare movie that shows someone working.
Unless a character has a job that can be goosed into a thriller plot like cop or lawyer, he or she normally has a lot of free time. Architects with light workloads, writers with lax deadlines, and freelancers with flexible hours abound. This isn't the only way that movies frequently depart from reality, and it makes a certain amount of sense. If most audience members work 40-plus hours a week at their own jobs, why would they want to spend their time off watching other people at theirs?
Yet because these kinds of details are so scarce in so many movies, it can be downright fascinating to see one that doesn't look away. That novelty is part of what powers Andrew Bujalski's Support the Girls (opening in select cities on Friday). Bujalski follows a day and change in the life of Lisa (Regina Hall), the general manager of Double Whammies, a local sports bar in Texas that follows the Hooters formula: wings, mozzarella sticks, a bunch of TVs, and waitresses in skimpy outfits. And a day in Lisa's life is a day spent mostly at her workplace, where she trains new recruits, surreptitiously organizes a fundraiser for an employee in trouble, deals with a possible break-in, and spends a lot of time on hold with the cable company.
The one-crazy-day structure is familiar, especially from vocation-based movies like Kevin Smith's Clerks. And like that '90s cult hit, Support the Girls is often quite funny. Bujalski, a director whose early films were so naturalistic about their 20-something subjects that he was dubbed part of the "mumblecore" movement, has experience downplaying his laugh lines, often relegating them to off-camera dialogue in ways that only make them funnier. Haley Lu Richardson is especially hilarious as the bubbliest of the waitresses, whose good cheer and love for her boss borders on mania, and Shayna McHayle does a fine real-world deadpan as a more skeptical waitress who's all too aware of the biases at place in the restaurant's staffing.
But this isn't a zany workplace comedy. It has lovely moments of solitude and quiet, like when Lisa sits in the loading area outside the restaurant, seething after a dropped call with the cable company, taking momentary solace in the chirping and fluttering of birds. Moreover, Lisa doesn't have some big-ticket dream or escape plan that involves, say, opening her own restaurant. The movie's glimpses of her personal life reveal a modest apartment, a tense marriage, and a vague hope that she might be able to prod her seemingly depressive husband into action, one way or the other. When one of the waitresses shrugs over the possibility of getting fired from Double Whammies, her faux-optimistic reminder that there's "lots of other shitty jobs out there" feels chillingly accurate. Yes, there are a lot of ways to barely scrape by. No, there isn't an easy way out of exploitative low-wage hell.
It's a predicament masterfully captured by Regina Hall, whose performance should be in the Oscars conversation. As she teeters between drama and comedy, she's adept at showing the subtle differences between Lisa's work face and the doubts that creep in when she's alone. The fact that many of the movie's characters are delightful doesn't diminish its portrayal of the constant push-pull between rules, money, sick time, child care, pleasing one boss but irritating another, and any number of other workaday frustrations.
Despite those frustrations, Support the Girls occasionally feels downright sunny in its treatment of Double Whammies and its vibe of acceptance among the closest-knit employees, even some regular customers (who are, after all, there in part to ogle the girls). The movie keeps itself real, though, not just by depicting these characters actually doing work (which is rare enough), but by remaining admirably unflinching about the work itself: how unlikely it is to lead to anything much better, how trapped its characters are, how their mutual affection is a nice perk that still can't solve their problems. Lots of movies like to tell stories about grit, determination, and perseverance. Support the Girls understands, and even finds rueful humor in, the ways those things can still lead to a dead end.
It may not be escapist, but it's sure as hell empathetic.