Support the Girls (2018) by Andrew Bujalski
By Nathan Smith
If you know me, you probably know I grew up in Texas. It’s easy to tell: I hang a Texas flag above my bed, I’m often listening to Houston rap, and I speak with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it drawl. But whenever I meet someone else from Texas, usually from Austin or Houston or Dallas, I hesitate to tell them exactly where I’m from.
I grew up in a town called College Station, which might be familiar to non-Texans as the home of Texas A&M University. But to most people from the Lone Star State’s slightly larger megalopolises, College Station is a blight. It’s a weird name for a place, one that sounds clinical and devoid of feeling, but it describes exactly what College Station is. Before College Station was a city proper, it was two things: a college and a train station. A community grew up around that, but only half of one: unlike most towns, even college towns, College Station has no real downtown, no walkable historic district, no heart. It is essentially a loose network of subdivisions that happen to be next to one another, with a patchwork of parking lots running in between. It was a good place to grow up until I moved away and realized it wasn’t.
All this is to say that the place I was born and bred, as deep down in the heart of Texas as you can get, is not the kind of place that you usually see on film. It’s there in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, which endows the suburbs and Sonic drive-thrus with a kind of poetic grace, but it is hardly anywhere else. Imagine, then, my surprise at the opening credits of Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls. Most viewers will see a concrete lattice of overpasses bigger than everything around you save for the sky, soundtracked by radio country peacefully playing out a car window as the credits pass by like signs on a freeway. I saw home.
Hollywood’s supposed disinterest in the American working class has become a popular—if insincere and ill-informed—talking point for everyone from conservative pundits to actor Chris Pratt, who said last year that the film industry had a “representation problem” when it comes to our country’s blue-collar workers. This speaks to a wider, post-Trump pandemonium about our culture’s supposed condescension toward the “white working class,” an attitude that can be seen creeping into films as diverse as Peter Berg’s docu-buster Deepwater Horizon, the reactionary genre revisionism of S. Craig Zahler's Brawl in Cell Block 99, and Roberto Minervini’s documentary The Other Side. On the one, I understand the concern, as I’m a leftist who believes in labor’s power to create broad societal change. I also believe that a lot of people in this country would spend less time looking for scapegoats if their economic needs were met. On the other hand, I also believe that the “white working class,” at least it is described by pundits and reactionaries, doesn’t exist.
We have been told for decades by politicians that the middle class is the backbone of our country and economy. This may have been the case several generations ago, but it is not the reality I see today as a millennial. Most people I know, even those who work office jobs, are paycheck to paycheck, with little to no personal savings, assets, or safety net to speak of. 40% of American adults cannot come up with $400 for a medical emergency. If you have to work to survive, you’re working class.
Support the Girls spoke truth to me personally as a child of strip malls and subdivisions, but it speaks to a much larger truth in its depiction of how the working class exists today. Our setting is Double Whammies, a Hooters-like establishment where the fried pickles are always overpriced, the servers are always underpaid, and the bras are always underwire. Despite the similarity in their selling points, it’s important to draw a distinction between Double Whammies and an institution like Hooters, a global franchise with locations in 44 states, 28 countries, and an international presence that continues to grow despite the best efforts of those pesky millennials who prefer butts to boobs. Hooters even operated its own airline from 2003 to 2006, with the iconic “Hooters Girls” serving up scantily-clad drinks and wings on every flight. Double Whammies, however, is a local sports bar with a single location at the end of a parking lot, a place where franchisement will only ever be a dream.
A location like this would be a gimmick for almost any other (male) filmmaker, but for director Andrew Bujalski it is a subculture worthy of serious study. Bujalski studied under Chantal Akerman and it shows. This is probably not a shock for viewers especially familiar with Bujalski’s last two films, Computer Chess (2013) and Results (2015), investigations into odd corners of Americana. Specificity is Bujalski's speciality. Computer Chess, a period piece shot on analog video and set at the beginning of the personal computing boom, is one of the few American films to thoroughly examine our culture’s relationship to information technology. Results, Bujalski’s first film with actual star power, might play closer to a conventional romantic comedy than his earlier relationship-driven work, but it’s also a portrait of a very specific kind of wellness culture that developed alongside Austin's cult of tech bro entrepreneurship.
Support the Girls is similarly detail-oriented, showing us how manager Lisa (Regina Hall) and her employees respond to every conceivable kind of workplace problem. A thief is trapped in the air vents, Danielle (Shayna McHayle, better known as the rapper Junglepussy) has no one to take care of her son and has to bring him to work, the cable is on the fritz, a new sound system needs to be acquired, new employees must be interviewed and trained, unruly patrons must be dealt with, and it’s not even noon.
Lisa and her girls may have formed a family, but that family exists in spite of their mistreatment by the restaurant’s owner, Cubby (James Le Gros), and many of its non-regular patrons, who are prone to harassment and unkind words. The girls at Double Whammies may be a racially diverse bunch, as racially diverse as America’s actual working class, but only one black girl is allowed on every shift, a rule Cubby argues is in place to encourage “diversity” amongst the wait staff: "If I put every Hispanic girl on the same shift, that wouldn't be diversity." Capitalism even changes these women’s bodies: one server gets a Steph Curry tattoo on her torso with the hopes that it will get her more tips from Double Whammies’ sports-loving patrons, but the dress code violation ends up getting her fired. Race, gender, and sexuality may impact the position of the women—and the back-of-house crew—who work at Double Whammies, but class is the nexus where all these issues intersect.
Regina Hall shined in last year’s Girls Trip as an Oprah-like self-help guru. Her character in Support the Girls is also a professional woman, but on the other end of the spectrum. Lisa isn’t giving keynotes at festivals for women; she’s stuck in a strip small sports bar with only the slimmest hope of ever being the real boss. Cracks are growing, despite her sweet country smile and no-bullshit attitude. She is beloved by her workers and some of the regulars, but you can’t get paid in affection. Lisa’s only flaw is that she cares too much, always making her employees problems her problems. As we know too well, capitalism isn’t a system that rewards people who care.
Support the Girls is one of the few movies I have ever seen—maybe the only one—about the weird liminal space occupied by managers, who represent the boss and enforce his words but are still subject to the same bossing around as regular employees. Managers are an intentional tool of alienation between employees and owners. They create distance, preventing employees from addressing their concerns with those immediately responsible for them. But they also create conflict, which means employees are too busy bickering with their managers to question the assumed authority of the owner class.
This doesn’t mean Support the Girls is pro-management propaganda. Rather, the film prompts us to reconsider how we define the “working class.” Lisa may enforce the law, but it’s no friend to her, and at the end of the day she’s subject to the same hardships as the girls within her jurisdiction. The very idea of ownership—especially in a workplace with no union to speak of—even hurts those a little higher up the ladder.
As a director, Bujalski works in a form of floor management too. He is allied, like Lisa, with his direct collaborators, the on-screen talent and the crew on the ground, but he is not quite one of them. Even then, he does not wield the true power that belongs to the upper management and owner class of producers, investors, and executives. Like Lisa, part of his skill and success comes from his generosity toward those who answer to him. Bujalski’s films are canny in their observations and careful in their direction, but they give to their performers more than they take. This is part and parcel of Bujalski's practice and experience (in films like Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation) in the American low-budget independent film movement of the early 2000s, more crassly referred to as "mumblecore." Mumblecore was often criticized for focusing on the woes of white males, but many of its best films—even those made by men—center on women. Through a process of collaboration and improvisation, those female characters are as much the product of the actors who play as they are the filmmakers.
Bujalski's management style, like Lisa’s, is all about putting people first, which means that the performers are the ones who rightfully get the acclaim. These characters belong to Regina Hall, Shayna McHalye, and Haley Lu Richardson as much and maybe more than they do their director. Bujalski—as is Lisa, despite the privilege that differentiates them—is quiet in the mix, which is perhaps why he is not applauded as the artist he should be: he’s just too damn good at his job. Even then, Bujalski and Lisa are both exceptions, not rules, and still operate within a system that is mostly exploitative.
Double Whammies almost becomes a metaphor for capitalism—and filmmaking under capitalism—itself. You can dress it up, make it mainstream, and even put more non-white workers on the same shift, but that doesn’t change the heart of the system. No matter how benevolent your manager might be, the ownership still sucks, the customers are mostly rude, and the pay will never be enough. Toward the end of the film, Maci (Haley Lu Richardson) says that “it makes such a difference when your boss really cares for you.” A good boss can make a bad job better, but a good boss is still no solvent for the sickness that is capitalism.
Support the Girls is a stunning tonic to the white feminist rhetoric of “Girlboss” capitalism, embodied by avatars like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, which holds that the only way for women to gain equality in our society is to become owners themselves. That misses the point entirely. Inequality is not a bug of the system, but a feature. Capitalism is inequality by design and will exploit whatever inequalities exist as long as it remains in place. Sexism, racism, and bigotry may predate the enshrinement of free market capitalism as our global religion, but capitalism has only intensified and institutionalized those forces, using hatred to establish a permanent underclass that has little choice but to give into the exploitation of owners in order to survive. Changing the way the upper class looks doesn’t change shit. We have to remove the entire divide.
Support the Girls is the kind of film that does not announce itself as “the kind of film we need now more than ever,” which is precisely why it is the kind of film we need now more than ever. It raises many of the same questions as Sorry to Bother You, and I hope that it is seen and supported with the fervor that Boots Riley’s film was. But I worry that it and Bujalski himself might just be too chill for that. Bujalski, who has made Austin his adopted home, reminds me of one of the Lone Star State’s other great storytellers: rapper Devin the Dude. Devin the Dude—for whom rapping is a job, not an art or a lifestyle—deserves to be held alongside heavyweights like Nas and Tupac, but he probably never will be: his best songs were about little hiccups like having a shitty car and running out of weed, not the big issues.
But sometimes the smallest termite can speak louder than the largest elephant. Support the Girls may present itself as a low-key workplace comedy, but the size of its canvas is no indication of the volume of its voice. Bujalski—in collaboration with a cabal of fine acting talent—not only shows us places that are rarely seen onscreen, but the realities of existence for many Americans that artists too often avoid and ignore.