If you're going into Support The Girls with the expectation of sitting through a raucous feminist comedy set inside a bizarro Hooters, you are in for a big surprise. I don't mean that in a bad way. In fact, I had pretty mild expectations for this film after seeing the trailer, and blown away by what actually played out onscreen: a though-provoking, incisive look at sexual politics in the workplace that's as dramatic and heartfelt as it is funny.
Written and directed by Andrew Bujalski, Support The Girls stars Regina Hall as Lisa, general manager of Double Whammies, a "boobs, brews and big screens" sports bar where the waitresses are as friendly as their midriffs are bare. Not Lisa, however. Clad in sensible work attire and in possession of an even more sensible attitude, she presides over her staff of young twenty-somethings with compassion and understanding, while firmly reminding them that "this is a family place," not to be mistaken with a strip club. As for the customers, she makes it crystal clear that she has a "zero tolerance policy" on harassment or abuse, a point she drives home early on when she asks a rude biker to leave after he makes a crack at someone's weight.
The film's timing feels spot-on. Just last week, a Business Insider report linked millennials' reported lack of interest in large breasts with the decline of Hooters, which has shuttered multiple locations in recent years. But what if it's just that millennials feel the company's business model is un-woke?
Double Whammies provides an extreme backdrop from which to explore themes of sexual harassment and empowerment that have dominated the national conversation for the last year or so. In this universe, everyone must police one another. The mostly male patrons frequent the establishment with the explicit expectation of cleavage and legs, but soon realize there is a line not to cross. On the flip side, the employees, most often young women with little experience, must balance teasing and flirting for tips with behavior that can be deemed overtly sexual, lest their customers get a little too familiar. In a training session for new hires, veteran waitress Maci (Hayley Lu Richardson) explains that a light touch on arm or shoulder is fine, but no more. "Try not to squeeze," she says. "That can get weird."
It can get a little fraught, but overall, Whammies seems like an okay place to work, mostly thanks to Lisa, who has a keen ability to make her employees feel like family. Ironically, she's not doing so well in her own personal life. Her husband Cameron (Lawrence Varnado) is someone who just "won't try," and that's the one thing Lisa cannot handle. “Sad men are my business,” she says, but she won't have it at home. To top it all off, one of her employees is in a financial bind after hitting an ex-boyfriend with her car, and Whammies' gross owner, Cubbie (James LeGros) is threatening to fire her, despite her obvious skills.
This might all be too much for Lisa to handle if it weren't for Danielle, her right-hand woman played by newcomer and scene-stealer Shayna McHale (better known by her music stage name, Junglepussy). Brandishing a sardonic smile that masks true sweetness, Danielle isn't afraid to speak truth to power, especially when it comes to Whammie's "rainbow" policy of only scheduling one person of color per shift. But she's also fiercely loyal. When Lisa asks her if she likes working where she does, Danielle responds: "I like working with you."
Bujalski's script is light on its feet, at times laugh out loud funny, but also empathetic and moving. One can feel backstories and past dealings looming over every interaction between characters. And contrary to most films dealing with hot button issues, he resists the urge to hit us over the head with them, a restraint that is welcome, especially in a male-directed film. You won't hear a character quipping about #MeToo or Times Up, or even the need for solidarity between women, but you'll think about it. A lot.
That subtlety and nuance is partly why it's so hard to reconcile the actual film with the way it's being marketed, as a light ra-ra girl power funfest. Perhaps it comes down to Hall, who made her name in comedies like the Scary Movie franchise, and most recently, Girl's Trip — we think we know what to expect from her. But Support The Girls gives her a chance to shine in a way she hasn't before. She's the quiet force behind the film, handling crises with poise even as you sense that anxiety, loneliness and anger are all hitting boiling point under that veneer of capable calm. It's a straight approach that works for her, especially when paired with co-worker Maci's wild and genuine enthusiasm for serving every creepy dude that comes in, going as far as to fire a literal sparkle canon. Richardson provides many of the movie's funniest and light-hearted scenes, proving once more that she's one to watch.
I won't spoil it, but the final scene has been ringing in my head for the last 24 hours. It's both a release and a call to arms — and don't we all need that right now?