Support the Girls (2018)

There aren’t many moments of tranquil beauty to be found in Support the Girls, because there isn’t much peace or beauty to be found in the service industry environment it depicts. The film is mostly relegated to the greyed-out concrete of Texan strip malls & interstate highways. When Regina Hall’s stressed-out restaurant manager finds a rare moment of Zen in the back alley behind her workplace, it manifests as a single migrant bird & a few scraggly bushes, a small glimpse of Nature that’s mostly drowned out by an endless sea of concrete & the constant background hum of passing cars. Mostly detailing a single disastrous day in the service industry, the stakes of the film are relatively small, but director Andrew Bujalski paints an impressively bleak picture anyway just by emphasizing the ugly blandness of the environment. There’s no need to push for more. The punishing, unnatural dullness of restaurant work in suburban Texas is enough dramatic tension to make Support the Girls a devastating watch, and to offer vital counterbalance to the film’s anguished sense of forced merriment.

It’s through that dwelling on punishing mediocrity that Support the Girls offers a damning vision of corporate world capitalism in a Texas-sized microcosm. The mundane details of its cookie-cutter service industry environment gave me vivid, unwanted flashbacks to working low-level back-of-the-house jobs at corporate restaurants I’d never personally patron, mostly to put myself through college. There’s an added layer of indignity here as the business in question is a “breastaurant,” which transforms waiting tables into a light form of sex work. Support the Girls isn’t quite the prostitution-as-microcosm-capitalism political screed that Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls is, but it’s not far off either. The wait staff of the fictional Double Whammies sports bar (a low-level Hooters knockoff) not only live in the grimmest version of concrete Texas mundanity; they also have to sexually stroke the egos of their macho, cheap beer-swilling customers. They’re part waitress, part stripper – which often blurs the boundaries of acceptable behavior from their patrons. Like all restaurant work, the only thing that gets them through is a sense of community as a crew, but capitalism has a way of souring & weaponizing even that consolation against them.

Regina Hall’s physically & emotionally overworked breastaurant manager is our window into this grim world. She’s both a leader & a healer for the girls on her staff and, against her best intentions, a tool of the enemy. Hall often finds herself emphasizing that “We are a family” to her employees, then using that sense of camaraderie & familial obligation to subtly apply pressure for them to do things beyond their normal expected workload, just to survive the day. As much as the team can come together for a shared hatred of the breastaurant’s racist, childish owner, Hall often becomes an extension of his awful will, to no one else’s gain. It’s the greatest tragedy of the film, as she means to do well by her girls, but the hierarchy is set up to make that impossible. The harshly bright lighting & sardonic humor of Support the Girls sets expectations for a Waiting-style broad comedy about the archetypal caricatures of the service industry, but Bujalski delivers something more subtly political & inherently tragic: a character study of a well-meaning capitalist victim who unwittingly becomes a tool for their own exploitation, with no alternative path.

There are plenty of broad service industry caricatures swarming around Regina Hall in this picture to distract from its true, grim nature. Haley Lu Richardson’s flighty firecracker with bottomless Employee of the Month energy particularly feels like she stumbled in from the set of an entirely different kind of comedy. The tragedy of Regina Hall’s goodwill being perverted as a tool for exploitation is much more difficult to detect than those flashes of broad humor. You can easily see it in the oppressive blandness of her environment, though. Wide shots frequently expand the frame just to capture the soul-crushing ugliness of her world: electrical outlets, stained drywall, interstate loops—an endless, monochromatic concrete Hell. There are plenty of momentary laughs to be found inside this bleak Texan prison, but being sentenced to a life within these confines ultimately feels joyless & without hope—an honest depiction of life-long restaurant work.

-Brandon Ledet