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Support The Girls
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by Jay Seaver

"A tacky place to eat, but you've got to like the ladies working there."
4 stars

It feels a bit like the movies as a whole skipped a step with "Support the Girls", that the natural order of things would be to have a zany comedy or three about behind-the-scenes hijinks at this sort of Hooters-knockoff "breastaurant" before the one that actually takes them kind of seriously comes out. Taking this route is probably more honest, and it certainly gives the cast some chances to do good work, even if it only occasionally has the movie hitting the comic heights that filmmaker Andrew Bujalski initially seems to be going for.

The bar & grill at the center of the film is a place called "Double Whammies", and general manager Lisa (Regina Hall) is the one who keeps it going on a day-to-day basis. Today that means interviewing a new group of young, busty girls; trying to raise money for an employee who drove her car into a boyfriend who was asking for it; calling the cops because a burglar apparently got stuck in the vent overnight; and trying to get the cable fixed because a sports bar without functioning TVs isn't much of a draw. For all of this, she inspires tremendous loyalty from the employees, especially the upbeat Maci (Haley Lu Richardson) and the more cynical Danyelle (Shayna McHayle), but is often seen by restaurant owner Cubby (James Le Gros) as something of a nuisance - and with national chain "Mancave" moving in nearby, he's thinking that it may no longer be worth indulging her insubordination and generosity.

Another manager shows up at the end of the day to take the night shift, and although it's not as if Bujalski has held back from showing that Whammies is kind of inherently tacky - compare the kitchen scenes to other restaurant-set movies, for instance, or note the lack of bustle and energy in the front - it's clear that things change as soon as things aren't running through Lisa. What's impressive about this is that it seems to be some sort of alchemy at times; Lisa is not presented as a genius, or unflappable, or even necessarily the nicest person in the film (it is hard to out-nice Maci). How much of that comes from Bujalski's script and how much comes from Regina Hall is impossible to untangle after the fact, but it's fantastic to watch Hall perform - it's not just that Lisa has a backbone despite being sweet and kind, with the requisite understated Texas twang, but that she seems to actively dislike not being nice. It hurts her to give up on people or engage in any sort of deception even when it's something to which everybody involved has tacitly agreed. Hall gives a frequently funny performance, often by playing a scene where she could look like a fool with confidence, but it's through how Lisa reacts to things - whether Hall shows her as befuddled, amused, or saddened - that the audience gets a feel for how funny something should be, and allows itself to react accordingly.

It certainly doesn't hurt that she's flanked by a couple of co-stars who highlight what makes Lisa great. Haley Lu Richardson sometimes has the job that's simpler on the surface; Maci is enthusiastic, outgoing, and by all indications uncomplicated, but she's also funny, often at the center of scenes that feel like they should have the audience laughing at her for being a dumb bimbo but which somehow never wind up with them looking down on her. Bujalski writes Maci as dependable underneath what usually comes across as a flighty exterior, and Richardson doesn't play those things against each other. Newcomer Shayna McHayle, meanwhile, is playing a more cynical character, not just in mindset but in how she's used - she notes that her opportunities are limited because Cubby doesn't want more than one black waitress on at once and she's the one explicitly sent out to use a customer's crush to her advantage early on - but she's just as funny as Richardson, meting out deadpan disdain when Danyelle is in situations that Lisa would try to finesse, carrying enough of her early sense of being overwhelmed from her first scene through the rest of the movie that it's always clear exactly where the line is between her not giving a damn about things that won't really get her in trouble and actual rebellion is.

There's an ensemble full of girls in smaller parts behind those three, some of whom get to stand out more than the others, and there are times when Bujalski seems to be wrestling with the paradox of exploitation here: Places like Whammies exist because there are a lot of guys that see women as a commodity, but they can't function smoothly unless they're filled with capable enough to be professional. Throughout the movie, Lisa often seems conflicted between her grudging respect for these young women who are canny and entrepreneurial enough to use their assets to get something and her frustration that it seems to be their first or best instinct. Lisa's a den mother to these girls, but seems as flummoxed as any mother of daughters about how to balance that they absolutely should demand more respect even though, yeah, you've got to take what the world gives you - especially when it's so hard to get boys to accept that girls could be ninjas or when even women who should know better treat these waitresses as silly ornaments.

It would be tempting to treat the men Lisa has to deal with as simple villains, but they tend to be mostly frustrating here: James Le Gros isn't given a leering pervert to play as Cubby, but an annoying misanthrope the chip on his shoulder there for anyone to knock off. John Elvis's regular customer comes across as harmless but weak, while Lawrence Varnado is decent but passive-aggressive. That often seems to be what these women have to settle for - guys not actively pushing down but also pretty comfortable with women putting on a low-cut crop top and doing more than their share of the work if that's the status quo.

Bujalski has been pushing his way into the mainstream of late after spending a decade-plus on indies that were probably more for the film festival audience than general consumption (although Lisa's occasional yelling that this place is mainstream comes from a different direction), and it's sometimes plain that his instincts are still there: The film is short but still occasionally kind of feels thin, at its best when the most charismatic members of the cast can carry it. He and his editors can put together scene very well, but he can often get sidetracked on the macro level, and the way this movie is built highlights it - whenever the action leaves the restaurant, the movie flags, even when it's the best way to learn more about a character.

Sticking around probably would have brought "Support the Girls" closer to the comedy it's billed as without necessarily giving Regina Hall less opportunity to impress. As it is, her performance may wind up a hidden gem more because the movie itself is a bit harder to sell a ticket for than because one wouldn't expect it in such a movie, but either way, Hall, Richardson, and McHayle certainly make it worth digging into.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32071&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/25/18 16:27:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 SXSW Film Festival For more in the 2018 SXSW Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Chicago Critics Film Festival For more in the 2018 Chicago Critics Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  24-Aug-2018 (R)
  DVD: 04-Dec-2018

UK
  N/A

Australia
  24-Aug-2018
  DVD: 04-Dec-2018




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