Support the Girls marks a thorough airing out of a most welcome subgenre: the workplace comedy of escalating crises. Unyieldingly patient Lisa (Regina Hall) runs an off-the-highway Texas sports bar, Double Whammies, with characteristic devotion and empathy toward her staff and customers. Though the servers’ tight-fitting attire may be Hooters-revealing, Lisa insists on a wholesome, “mainstream” atmosphere, as amenable to families as it is to fight-watchers or before-noon, Lone Star-sipping regulars like Bobo (Lea DeLaria). But on the day that Andrew Bujalski’s high-energy sixth feature catches Lisa, the managerial challenges pile up with such urgency that not even she can get through the hours without flipping off a bird or kicking the side of a building. Mostly offscreen waitress Shaina (Jana Kramer) has rammed her car into her belligerent boyfriend, so Lisa cooks up a scheme to raise money to meet Shaina’s impending legal fees: assigning a group of young women who have applied for server jobs to offer car washes in the parking lot. (“Support the girls,” reads a note on the tin can collecting the customers’ donations.)
Undertaken without the blessing of the bar’s crotchety owner, Cubby (James Le Gros), the car wash project becomes a constant source of anxiety in Lisa's afternoon. But the more immediate, minute-by-minute complications also strain Lisa’s trademark enthusiasm. In one shot alone, Lisa receives back-to-back crisis dispatches from servers: One reports that a customer made a crude remark about her weight; another emerges from a restroom from which emanates the sound of a man hurling. Lisa takes this all commendably in stride — just before her confrontation with the offensive patron, we see her let out a deep sigh — but we’re only a half-hour into the movie. And did I mention that the restaurant’s televisions aren’t working or that the police are on-site investigating a robbery?
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This frenetic suite of situations hardly adds up to Frederick Wiseman’s Sports Bar. But Bujalski — as he has in his previous work, like Results (2015), about the employees of a boutique Texas gym — still displays a productive and analytical interest in the mechanics of operating a small business. Lisa’s recruitment of job applicants for the car wash scheme demands setup scenes in which she and Maci (Haley Lu Richardson) outline the statutes and philosophies of Double Whammies: an official list of “Golden Rules” posted in the locker room (“Be responsible”); Maci’s explanation of the borderline between acceptable and questionable touching of the customers (“try not to squeeze”). Even a sideline character like Jay (John Elvis), depicted chiefly through his gratuitous passes at the Double Whammies ladies (he’s married and in one line refers to his wife as his “roommate situation”), isn’t some professionally anonymous personality but the proud polo-and-khaki-wearing employee of a speaker store, Sounds Town. Bujalski works this fact into the traffic of the plot, showing Lisa and one of her most beloved colleagues, Danyelle (Shayna McHayle, aka Junglepussy), visiting Jay’s shop and exploiting his infatuation to secure a discount on a speaker system for the restaurant. A charming but inconsequential scene of Lisa attempting to entertain Danyelle’s son, McKray (Jermichael Gray), also can’t escape the specter of the bottom line. Lisa shares with the child her shift chart, playfully likening the schedule to a puzzle and her servers to “my bench” and “my superstars” (“Your mom, she’s right at the top”).
Bujalski frames most of Support the Girls as an almost real-time delineation of chaos, but his storytelling elegance — delicate, nearly invisible foreshadowing; cogent evocations of backstory — adds reflective layers to the surface anarchy. During one car ride, Lisa happens to see a woman crying in a juice bar window; it seems like nothing, but Lisa later returns to the shop and consoles the woman, who turns out to be Krista (AJ Michalka), a Double Whammies server agonizing over how her impulsive Stephen Curry tattoo will be received at work and elsewhere.
The more Lisa sprints selflessly around — attending to calamities as minor as an absent foosball table or as major as her on-the-rocks marriage (to Cameron, played by Lawrence Varnado) — the more Bujalski and Hall start to painfully question her superhuman investment in others. The early impression of a confident, sunny bravado, with Lisa cheerfully confronting tasks as they materialize, falls away, exposing the vulnerable interiority of a person defined so profoundly by her prioritization of work and colleagues over herself. When Danyelle says to Lisa, “You’re married to this place,” it feels like precisely the sort of line that might have kept Lisa coming back in the past — but that on this trying day has the opposite effect, sending her off on an overdue mission of personal reckoning.