They call ’em “breastaurants” — those sports-bar-and-grills less known for their cuisine than their well-endowed waitresses poured into tight t-shirts and oh-so-suggestive shorts. If you’ve been to Hooters, or are aware of the concept behind this formerly popular pin-up-calendar-come-to-life chain, you know the business model. These places sell dudes a sanitized version of sex with a side of hot wings — or as a character says in Support the Girls, a fantasy fueled by “boobs, brews and big screens.” It’s why people come to Double Whammies, the movie’s fictional version of an Appleby’s-meets-the-Mickey-Mouse-strip-club eatery. It could be any of a thousand generic corporate restaurants on the side of any of a thousand interchangeable interstates. The fact that it’s the site of one of the most empathetic, nuanced, beautifully realized American movies of the past few years might strike you as odd. Stealth feminism and cine-sensitivity can come from the strangest of places.
Meet Lisa (Regina Hall), the harried general manager/mother hen of this bro hangout — she’s the one crying in her car in the parking lot. Her motley crew of servers follow the lead of the floor’s alpha, the irrepressibly bubbly twentysomething Maci (Haley Lu Richardson, irrepressible and bubbly). But Lisa is the one who calls the shots, who handles everything with saintly patience and a strained smile, who inspires a deep loyalty among her staff and keeps the dickwad owner (James Le Gros) at bay. She once made the trains run on time at a snooty steakhouse, she mentions at one point. But Lisa prefers it here. The woman is, as her unofficial second-in-command Danyelle (Shayna McHayle) declares, “the wind beneath [our] buffalo wings.”
Today, however, is not a good day. There’s a would-be thief stuck in the ventilation system when Lisa opens up for the early lunch rush. She’s trying to organize an off-the-books car wash for a former employee who needs cash without the Whammies owner getting a whiff of it. The cable is out, which means no boxing match for the beer-buying customers. The imminent arrival of a national chain called Mancave — a sort of darkest-timeline counterpart to this regional joint — threatens to siphon off their regulars. Her personal life is a shambles. And her protective instincts have a tendency to backfire on her at the worst possible moments. Complete meltdown is just one bad shift away.
Forget, for a second, that you’re watching scantily-clad young women upsell “big-ass beers” to middle-aged men and perpetuate some D-cup-runneth-over feedback loop for the d-bag crowd; what writer-director Andrew Bujalski has done here is create an oasis of sisterly love in a pit of toxic masculinity. The key word here is not Girls — it’s Support. These servers have bonded in the same way that soldiers do in trench warfare. They have each others backs, making sure the customers don’t get too handsy or mouthy with their compatriots, calling in the cavalry so that a fellow server’s kid is being taken care of. If one of them has to take advantage of a stereo salesman’s googly-eyed crush in order to get a free sound system for a fundraiser, they’ll roll their eyes at the suggestion … and then they’ll do it. “Family,” for them, is not team-building lingo. It’s what they’ve organically created to keep each other afloat in a sea of everyday wage-slavery.
And “organic” is the first word that comes to mind when you think of the three performers at the center of this battalion. Hall proves once again that there is no apparent limit to her talent — her mask of infinite politeness is priceless; her weary sigh is a soul-destroyer — and that she’s both a standout actor and a peerless team player. (You do not get Tiffany Haddish going gonzo in Girls Trip without Hall anchoring the film around her.) Richardson turns a y’all-come-back-now-ya-hear role into the personification of beer-mug-half-full optimism, and makes you believe that no human being could sell a line like “Chocolate milk rules!” with more wide-eyed conviction. And McHayle, who’s day job is a musician who goes by the name Junglepussy, ends up giving the film’s personification of IDGAF sass a freedom fighter’s sense of purpose. They are a low-key “name a more iconic trio” meme waiting to happen.
Bujalski, you may remember, is the gent who who helped kickstart a filmmaking community and became the Patient Zero of a microbudget cinematic movement. (You know the name of it.) Now in his forties, the writer/director long left the world of lo-fi, oh-well-whatever-never-mind chronicles behind, though his formally creative Computer Chess (2013) and chilly-to-fault dramedy Results (2016) still hinted at a voice in flux. This, however, suggests Bujalski’s sweet spot is really a shaggy, Jonathan Demme-like humanism. (This is easily the most Demme-glazed ensemble movie in ages; it would play beautifully on a double bill with Citizen’s Band.)
He’s not above making throwing jabs and scoring easy points about, say, corporate complicity in exploitation — see: the female Mancave recruiter who explains that their place is different, because they foster a culture a respect and also, “our strategy is moving away from boobs and into butts.” But what he’s really interested in is providing a canvas and letting his cast paint the picture. This is an actors’ film, one that proudly wears its women-run-the-world bona fides on its sleeve. They provide the sisterhood and the sense of boiling over. After a full-circle callback to its beginning, Support the Girls ends, pitch-perfectly, with a primal scream therapy session on the top of a strip-mall building, female voices being heard above highway noise. It’s a cathartic yowl of pure late-capitalism frustration and fed-uppedness, yet it somehow feels enraged, righteous and joyous all at once. You could not ask for a better image of our country right now. You could not ask for a better American film to showcase it.