“Life keeps throwing you bullshit,” says Lisa (Regina Hall), in Andrew Bujalski’s remarkable “Support the Girls,” a thoughtful and touching look at the day in the life of a woman running an Austin sports bar, and her maternal support of the scantily clad waitresses who answer to her. Lisa has to put up with a lot of bullshit: an attempted robbery, unruly sexist customers, the bar’s obnoxious owner (James LeGros), marriage troubles, and her own staff. But she juggles each new challenge with a steely resolve that makes her one of Bujalski’s greatest characters, the indefatigable creation of a filmmaker who excels at exploring the nuances of human behavior.
There’s nothing subtle about Lisa’s place of an employment, the crudely named Double Whammies, where she oversees a sexist operation with an unusual amount of dignity. The movie unfolds as a succession of small moments, with Hall at the center of nearly every scene, as she bounces from one frustrating task to the next. In the midst of training new staff and attempting to raise funds for a struggling employee with a carwash, she’s forced to contend with a pileup of complications. The cable keeps going out, her boss won’t stop giving her grief, the customers objectify the women, and her husband’s in the process of moving out. Everyone seems to appreciate her, but nobody will give her a break.
Often seen in closeup, Hall plays Lisa as study in conflict, her simmering anger at odds with a constant undercurrent of empathy. “Sad men are my business,” she says, and the fascinating mystery of “Support the Girls” isn’t only why a sharp, eloquent woman would subject herself to such an infuriating routine, but also how much longer she’s willing to stand for it. This has been a recurring motif for Bujalski ever since the filmmaker himself tossed a beer off the balcony in his 2002 debut “Funny Ha Ha.”
Lisa finds herself on the receiving end of similar outbursts. In one fantastic tangent, she hits the road to hash things out with her boss, only to contend with his sudden road rage. She rolls her eyes at another instance of male id unleashed for no good reason. The sequence dangles between comedy and discomfort with a specificity unique to Bujalski.
The movie’s mini-dramas unfold against an unremarkable strip-mall backdrop that takes on metaphorical connotations. Double Whammies sits adjacent a vacant highway stretching in several directions, transforming the vacant landscape of the greater Austin area into a distillation of working-class frustrations. Bujalski has a penchant for exploring lonely people trapped between aspirations and the grind of the everyday, and the film’s single-day structure (last utilized in his “Computer Chess”) provides a perfect framing device for magnifying that challenge. “Support the Girls” is a humble, restrained movie, at times aimless as it moves along, but never devoid of keen observations.
Bujalski fleshes out Lisa’s world with a colorful ensemble, including a boisterous staff of waitresses who might not look out of place in an unruly studio comedy; instead, they’re vivid snapshots of young women struggling to make the best of an unsavory existence. These include Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), who retains her giddy outlook in the face of constant mistreatment, and Danyelle (Shayna McHayle, otherwise known as hip-hop sensation Junglepussy), whose no-nonsense attitude turns her into Lisa’s de facto body guard.
Not that she really needs the help. Sifting through her problems with aplomb, Lisa forms the centerpiece of Bujalski’s most sensitive movie, in large part thanks to Hall’s committed performance. A world away from the studio comedies of “Girls Trip” and the “Scary Movie” franchise that she’s best known for, Hall endows Lisa with a complex sensibility and an utter lack of compromise. It’s no surprise, during a prolonged third-act stretch where the bar must make do without her, that the entire institution careens into chaos.
It’s relevant to note that Bujalski has an ethnographic approach to his subject matter, and not only because he’s a white guy looking at a black woman’s life. At a time when the industry clamors for more women directors and female-driven stories, “Support the Girls” stands out for working beyond the constraints of its male director’s point of view. Instead, “Support the Girls” lays out a complex ecosystem and hovers within its confines, picking up on the subtle race and gender discriminations that, for these characters, has become as common as the air they breathe. The movie’s title is a mantra, but it’s also a plea.
“Support the Girls” premiered in the Narrative Spotlight section at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival. Magnolia will release it later this year.