Geoffrey Owens, a working actor famous for his childhood role on The Cosby Show two decades ago, was in the news recently because of his need to take a job at Trader Joe’s to make ends meet between gigs. His working reality became a media sensation because of precisely what Americans expect out of work — what it means, who deserves what job and the implied social shame in working to get by.
Two of the most popular American sitcoms of the past decade — The Office and Parks and Recreation (not to mention shows from decades before, before, before) — are centered around relationships between mid-wage workers navigating the natural doldrums and drama of American professional life. “Mumblecore,” the genre to which Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls (available on VOD) owes its allegiance, is the direct descendant of Clerks, arguably still one of the most well-made comedies about degrading, low-wage work. There are notable similarities between the two: Both take place in a single day, starring the manager of a marginalized service industry (in Clerks, a convenience store; in Girls, a Hooters-like establishment called Double Whammies). Both are a “day in the life,” of course the worst day in the life, where everything possible goes wrong — bad customers, odd maintenance issues, a crumbling personal life.
Unlike Clerks, the film that launched a thousand potty-mouthed young men into the industry to explain how unique their experience is (often at the expense of other ideas), Girls strives for a greater ear toward and empathy for marginalized working women. Lisa Conroy (Regina Hall, in a great dramatic turn) is the manager of Whammies, deeply protective of the waitresses whose livelihoods and safety she must work at all times to help protect. The men and women who patron Whammies are there for eye candy, crappy food and sports, but harassment and degradation are always one bad customer away. Her waitresses — Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), Danyelle (Shayna McHayle), and Kirsta (AJ Michalka) are like daughters to her. It’s those relationships between Lisa and her waitresses that really drive the story, although it rarely strays from familiar mumblecore workplace plot tropes.
The ending sequence in particular feels lifted out of Garden State, with three of the women yelling off the rooftop of a building to release the stress and intensity of their lives. It’s the sort of emotional catharsis that feels superficial in the moment but narratively effective, particularly given the conversation between Lisa, Maci and Danyelle that directly precedes it. These movies are first and foremost about spending time with the characters and feeling like you could meet them on the street, and Girls succeeds in that respect.
Hall’s performance as Lisa is the kind of career moment that will hopefully land her more diverse opportunities, if that’s the direction she wants to take her career. What Girls has that its spiritual forebears don’t is a performance quite as good or as singular as hers. Lisa’s storyline is one of real darkness. Her “bad day” is not a superficial moment where she can just go home at the end of it, kick back and forget it. Hall plays Lisa as a woman who has seen continual struggle and stress, someone who eventually manages to overcome it for the sake of those around her — without the script ever being so basic as to give her a monologue describing it.
Written by Bujalski (whose previous credits are also notable mumblecore releases), the script tries as hard as it can to present most of the woman who work at Whammies as experiencing the worst of humanity day in and day out, without faltering. But in a way, it feels like the pitch (which must have sounded like “Clerks or Waiting … in a Hooters Restaurant”) was tantalizing for many of the reasons that a Hooters restaurant is tantalizing; it brings people in the door and ropes them into a product using sexuality to sell. I am not sure this movie has a lot to say about women that requires this specific profession as a setting. In fact, it contextualizes the sexism they face while working to be a result of their line of work rather than an element of the everyday environment of service jobs. This isn’t a fatal flaw by any means; I was just surprised that setting the movie in this environment was largely an aesthetic choice.
Support the Girls, though, is a very well-crafted tale about a woman making it through her degrading work day in order to barely pay the bills, to see her commitment to the job rip apart her personal life. Well, that’s the American story now, isn’t it?