Early on in James L. Brooks’ 1987 masterpiece Broadcast News, Holly Hunter’s TV segment producer Jane Craig is seen unplugging her hotel room phone to cry in peace for a moment; she’s a strong, independent journalist but she also just has to let it all out, from time to time. It makes sense that Andrew Bujalski’s new film Support the Girls also uses this motif of the sobbing professional woman to characterise its main protagonist in its opening sequence. Like Broadcast News, this is a film about work – and more specifically, and crucially, about women at work, and the particular challenges they face because of their gender.
Since she begins her workday crying in her car in the parking lot of her place of employment, it seems that the reason behind Lisa (Regina Hall in a career peak performance)’s distress is the idea of spending another day at Double Whammies, the “sports bar with curves” of which she is the general manager. But Lisa clearly isn’t a weak, emotionally susceptible person: soon she wipes off her tears, hugs one of her “girls” – the generally young and shapely women hired by the bar – and gets down to business. Throughout the film, Bujalski reveals the depth of Lisa’s pain and its many tangled up causes, but never lets these problems define her. Instead, it is Lisa’s relentless but informed optimism that makes her at once a real-life wonder woman, and a relatable tragic figure in a cruel capitalist world.
Like any workplace, Double Whammies functions according to a set of rules, but Bujalski starts his 24-hour observation of the restaurant before opening time, as Lisa welcomes a group of young potential recruits for a job interview. She explains the place’s guidelines (i.e. “look, don’t touch”) to the new cohort, while all around them the current employees are arriving and slowly getting ready, neither anxious nor excited for the day ahead. Before the doors open, the girls don’t need to be cute; they are simply themselves, but they know the grind is upon them.
What is palpable here is a natural sense of camaraderie, emanating in particular from the cheerleader-like Maci (the fantastic Haley Lu Richardson) but also, more casually, from the older and more world-weary Danyelle (first time actress Shayna McHayle, singular and hilarious), in the way she talks openly but kindly to her boss. These two women present an interesting contrast and a common truth. Maci’s good nature is no doubt performative, but already, Bujalski shows us it isn’t an act – she has no customers to smile to at this early hour. Danyelle’s blasé attitude, meanwhile, doesn’t arise from a contempt for her job so much as the exhaustion of juggling work and motherhood. Despite their different personalities – one sings, the other doesn’t – both girls genuinely appreciate working under Lisa, and tell her so.
In her presentation to the newcomers, Lisa insists on the idea of family, not only because the bar’s clientele is your typical American household, but also because the whole team has to support each other. The double-whammy irony of a “wholesome” boob-centric business aimed at traditional Puritans (including lots of sleazy dads) isn’t lost on Bujalski, who reveals a casual comic timing and an ability to make different acting styles bounce off each other playfully to paint a picture in relief. But the word “family” leaves an uneasy feeling: as much as it is meant to connote mutual appreciation, it also carries with it a sense of threat and abuse. Isn’t it with our siblings and parents, after all, that we most easily let daily compromises turn into toxic relationships?
Tears notwithstanding, Lisa refuses to let this anxiety rule her life. To counter it, she floods her employees and everyone around her with compassion and love. When one of her girls finds herself in need of a lawyer but short on cash, the boss sets up a carwash fundraiser (but won’t let it turn into a wet t-shirt exhibition), risking her job but defending what she believes is at the core of Double Whammies’ success – respect for the girls and for everyone’s struggle. But Bujalski stays clear of easy sentimentality, as throughout her day, Lisa faces hurdle after hurdle, all of which chip away at her good spirit. An amateur thief caught in the vent, a sound technician that needs coaxing to offer his services, and many more unpredictable problems (almost all embodied by men) pile up, keeping the film in a realistic mode but leaning towards the grotesque – but who hasn’t seen his or her workday snowball in weird directions? With its crazy-day-in-the-life framework, Support The Girls presents itself as a character study of Lisa under duress and an existential debate by the same token: how do you cope with a reality where your efforts rarely pay off?
Where Support The Girls surprises and moves is in its refusal to settle for an easy dichotomy between Lisa’s idealism and the world’s (and the work’s) essential, inescapable bleakness. Lisa’s bottomless well of generosity can’t prevent money from ruling everything around her neither does it guarantee her the gratitude of others. Just as none of the girls who have been at Double Whammies long enough doubt that their clientele will always be more interested by the sports on the restaurant’s TVs than by their breasts; just as gross, insulting men will always appear amongst the respectful ones; just as altruism can’t always save a flagging romantic relationship - no amount of goodwill can make working under capitalism more than a tedious, unfulfilling necessity. All that love and friendship can do is help you survive through it and ward off the loneliness. Maci isn’t simply a manic sexy dream girl; or rather, she is, but she is fully aware of it. Unlike Danyelle, she has chosen to overlay the difficulty of her life with a hefty dose of enthusiasm to make it at least a little fun. Danyelle may refuse to smile away her problems, but she doesn’t let them keep her down or close her heart to her kid.
At the end of Broadcast News, Jane, now seven years older, is a successful woman and reunites with her friends from back then – or rather her ex-friends, for they evidently haven’t been much in touch. Different promotions, resentments and romantic disappointments drew them away from each other, and the melancholy of this scene is a smack in the face. Like Brooks, Bujalski isn’t naive enough to posit that friendship can win over the free market – or that screaming into the void is the same as being heard. But as he focuses on his heroines’ sisterhood – the bonds of a group that shares the same burden of expectations and uncertainty – he posits that this particular type of friendliness can help you stick it out you until your shift is over, and it will again tomorrow.