Andrew Bujalski is in the middle stages of an interesting career as a filmmaker. His breakthrough, 2013’s Computer Chess, was a black-and-white festival darling that used “mumblecore” techniques (natural, often improvised dialogue) that Bujalski helped pioneer in the early aughts. Bolstered by the attention from that film, 2015’s Results—a light, appealing rom-com that paired the writer/director with actual movie stars Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders—had a higher budget and showed a more traditional approach to filmmaking.
It was fair, in 2015, to assume that Bujalski might end up on the list of big-name Texas directors whose pictures get increasingly mainstream—the next Robert Rodriguez or Richard Linklater, maybe. But after three years, he’s as idiosyncratic as ever, returning with a movie that isn’t interested in delivering an expected narrative. With his latest, Support the Girls, which had its world premiere at SXSW on Friday night, he explores the “breastaurant”—those restaurants, typically off the interstate, where a largely male clientele go to watch sports and be served cheeseburgers by young women in barely-there uniforms.
The film is an ensemble piece, but it centers on Lisa, the manager of Double Whammies, who is played by Scary Movie franchise star Regina Hall. The events of the film all take place over the course of one day—a mostly typical day at the business where the series of dilemmas involves hiring new servers, the need to fundraise with an unplanned car wash, the cable at the sports bar going out, and a server having to bring her son to work. The plot follows Lisa as she manages, and protects, a dozen or so young women whose cash flow depends on how nicely they can flirt with the men who come to watch them work. It’s a potent performance from Hall, who’s tasked with making all of this feel not just real, but important, to an audience that probably doesn’t spend a whole lot of time at the Twin Peaks and Hooters of the world.
Whether or not what happens on an ordinary day at a breastaurant is important is the major theme of Support the Girls, and it’s one that is fascinating to watch unfold: The movie, ultimately, is about how and why to care about systems that don’t care much about you. Lisa manages Double Whammies, but she’s not the owner. She invests a great deal in making sure that the women who work for her are safe, respected, and as happy as they’re able to be, but none of that is particularly important to the men she works for (played here by a never-better James Le Gros and Austin filmmaker Jonny Mars).
Support the Girls is the sort of day-in-the-life dramedy that was popular in the indie film gold rush of the early and mid-nineties—think Clerks or maybe Empire Records—but with a decidedly more contemporary aesthetic. There are funny bits (one subplot involves a waitress, played by A.J. Michalka, whom Lisa reluctantly has to fire after she gets a tattoo of Steph Curry’s face on her stomach) and dramatic ones (scenes about a server with an abusive boyfriend). Ultimately, though, it’s an ensemble piece that looks at the women who work at a place like the fictional Double Whammies, or its real-life counterparts, with curiosity and sympathy. The research Bujalski did before writing the script sometimes leaps off the page—elements like the owner’s policy that there not be more than two black servers scheduled at the same time is the sort of thing that is often drawn directly from interviews with people who worked in the industry. (There’s also a revelatory performance from Shayla McHayle, better known as the rapper Junglepussy, in her first acting role.)
Bujalski’s movies have always focused on people in the margins, no matter where those margins lie. It makes sense, then, that he’d make a movie about caring, and why we care about the things we do. That this film also explores what happens in systems that are designed to be exploitative, and what a difference it makes when someone decides they care enough to stand in the way of that exploitation, makes it the sort of story we don’t see enough. Support the Girls may finally be the film that lands Bujalski into the big time of Texas filmmakers, or it may keep him on the same trajectory he’s on now—making quirky movies that find audiences just large enough for him to make more—but either way, we’re lucky to have him.