When Andrew Bujalski released his debut Funny Ha Ha in 2002, it was not evident yet that he would forever change the face of an entire subgenre. The film spawned a movement that is often not particularly adored, but whose spirit is undeniably injected into the majority of modern American independent films – the Mumblecore.
Most films of this genre, heavily shaped by their feeling of structural spontaneity, rejection of conventional storytelling beats and DIY-aesthetic (in the same vein as the Berliner Schule and the Dogma movement), focus on creating a feeling of extreme realism and intimacy. Bujalski, less successfully, repeated that formula two more times with Mutual Appreciation (2005) and Beeswax (2009), until he showed his will to experiment with the Mumblecore form. With his refreshingly weird and insanely original Computer Chess (2013), a niche masterpiece that feels somehow isolated (for the lack of a better word) in its attempt at cinematic storytelling, he created a wholly original subversion of the genre – an absurd period piece about a programming tournament with the goal to create a computer, which is able to beat a human being at chess.
In 2015, Bujalski got a shot at Results, a somewhat bigger project, starring Cobie Smulders and Guy Pearce. It was the first step of a departure that aimed to reach a broader audience and which finally hit a climax in the newest project of his rich and inventive filmography. Unfolding over about 24 hours in the life of a working-class woman, Support the Girls is a vital, entertaining and accessible film that fits into the rare bridge between auteur filmmaking and mainstream delight.
Lisa Conroy is the manager of a restaurant called Double Whammies. It’s as tragic as it sounds – a place showcasing some of the most absurd contradictions of American society and mostly made to appeal to men, even though it markets itself as a family-friendly place (I don’t think there is much comment needed for what this says about the patriarchy). Our introduction to Lisa is a moment that shows us a glimpse of her interior self: she sits in her car and cries before starting another day of work. This moment sets up a dramatic arc, that is ever present and which builds and builds the longer the film goes on. Lisa’s job is truly and palpably exhausting and seems like an impossible task to master every single day. Her co-workers, specifically Danyelle, a breakout performance by Shayna McHayle, and Maci, played by a shining and hilarious Haley Lu Richardson, seem to have a lot on their plate too. Lisa tries her very best to help them, not only because she needs their help in return, but also because she is a deeply caring person as long as she has the energy for it.
Bujalski builds a naturalistic microcosmos of moments and multilayered character experiences around this mostly passive main narrative, reviving his mumblecore roots. It’s a combination of an always progressing and simultaneously free-flowing kind of storytelling that takes the stage, and which feels incredibly free and to the point all at once. As a sharp and brilliant auteur film, it’s an invigorating cinematic experience for film lovers. But Bujalski does the right thing by making these characters as real as possible and creating a working-class story as simple and pointed as it gets. Everyone can enjoy this film, it’s not hung up in its own head, it’s funny as hell and still feels rich and complex.
That being said, it’s unimaginable to talk about Support the Girls without talking about Regina Hall’s lively and relentless performance. It’s one that permanently shifts between the comedic and the dramatic, and will stand as one of the greatest acting feats to grace a screen this year. As Lisa, she embodies the centre of this microcosmos, posing as a crucial puzzle piece in the bigger picture, even though she is haunted by self-doubts. In one of the most striking scenes of the film, she is overwhelmed and calls herself selfish, a thought that instantly gets confronted and negated by Maci and Danyelle. It seems like a ridiculous observation, as she visibly puts her entire energy into the world around her until she is left exhausted in the end. But where else does it come from? Her unmentioned past probably plays into that, but above everything, Bujalski makes a direct point about the system and the American Dream. Capitalism, inherently dehumanizing, makes it seem like we earn what we deserve from our work. Lisa truly and undeniably gives all she can, and yet will not foreseeably get anywhere. Why? Because she is going to be permanently unable to find time and strive into a different, perhaps more comfortable and fairly paid work field. She’s reached the possible top of her current one already; she is a black woman and the American Dream is tailored for a white middle class.
But Support the Girls doesn’t wallow in that depressing state of mind. Bujalski is mainly interested in the psychological shift from putting yourself down, because your best doesn’t seem to be good enough, to the recognition that it’s not you who is flawed, but the system. It’s a big middle finger to unfairness, an ode to undying spirits and humanity. In a random moment, Maci shoots off a shower of confetti through the restaurant. It’s chaos, it’s unasked for and it’s kind of desperate. And that’s what makes it so human and so beautiful.