The marvelous Regina Hall enters “Support the Girls” in a flurry of tears and exits in a blaze of glory. That hard-won triumph isn’t hers alone; she shares it with Haley Lu Richardson and Shayna McHayle, both divine as the two best friends and employees a put-upon restaurant manager could have. But the soul of this wise and wonderfully loose-limbed comedy is Hall’s no-bull star turn as Lisa, who’s spent too long running the show at Double Whammies, a crummy Texas sports bar whose mostly male patrons come for the “boobs, brews and big screens.” Buffalo wings too.
The gifted writer-director Andrew Bujalski surveys this depressing sub-Hooters dive with mild derision, but he also shows enormous respect and affection for the people who keep it running. Training some new servers, Lisa proudly emphasizes that Double Whammies is a family-friendly establishment (“It’s like working at Chili’s or Applebee’s, except the tips are way better”), with a zero-tolerance policy on disrespect and sexual assault. Her cheerful deputy, Maci (Richardson, outshining the sun), supplies some more practical advice on how to keep customers happy: Smile wide, lightly touch their arms or shoulders, and let those tight little uniforms and bared midriffs do the rest.
Still, it’s not easy keeping this leaky ship afloat in a downbeat economy and — if recent Hooters-related headlines are to be believed — a millennial culture that sadly no longer values the female breast. Its title at once a sincere plea and a sly joke, “Support the Girls” unfolds over the course of an especially rough day for Lisa — or maybe it’s just business as usual, given how she takes everything in stride. After crying quietly in her car for reasons that will be revealed later, Lisa marches into work and soon finds herself dealing with difficult customers, malfunctioning TVs and the aftermath of a pathetically bungled break-in.
Damage-control expert, fortunately, is one of the many hats Lisa keeps in steady rotation, along with den mother, cheerleader, shrink, landlady, fund-raiser and, as the circumstances sometimes dictate, pimp. In desperate need of a new sound system, she begs her server and closest confidant, Danyelle (McHayle, a natural-born eye-roller), to put a few innocent moves on a horny audio-store employee (John Elvis), himself a Double Whammies regular.
Lisa is also the one who has to deal with the restaurant’s grouchy owner (James Le Gros), whose many unsavory qualities include his strict insistence that only one waitress of color can be assigned to each shift. The movie doesn’t overplay that detail; it’s just one little glimmer of insight into a sometimes toxic, always stressful work environment, one more indignity that Lisa’s girls have to put up with in a job that already discriminates according to age, appearance and cup size.
Initially at first, “Support the Girls” unfolds as if this were just a day like any other, following Lisa as she puts out a series of personal and professional fires. We register how ugly, messy and not-even-remotely sexy it can be to grapple with surprise setbacks, untrustworthy employees and the unique fatigue of restaurant work. We also register Lisa’s essential decency and compassion, the personal sacrifices she’s made to try and make her staff feel like a family.
The point is underscored by a few narrative swerves — involving her depressive husband, Cameron (Lawrence Varnado), and two ex-employees whom she tries to help back on their feet — that add layers of emotional complication to what initially seemed like a genially roving slice-of-life. At times, “Support the Girls” suggests a tamer, femme-forward version of “Magic Mike,” not just because of the communal vibes and partially bared bodies but also because of Bujalski’s sharp, jaundiced critique of late capitalism and his clear-eyed sympathy with those struggling near the bottom.
Years after arriving on the indie scene with his scrappy proto-mumblecore classics “Funny Ha Ha” (2002) and “Mutual Appreciation” (2005), Bujalski has taken a few concerted but characteristically unpredictable steps toward the mainstream, most recently with his 2015 romantic comedy “Results.” (In its look at a small business’ behind-the-counter operations, “Support the Girls” also feels recognizably connected to Bujalski’s 2009 film, “Beeswax.”)
But if his characters have grown more eloquent and his visuals have gotten slicker (he retains his longtime cinematographer, the versatile Matthias Grunsky), the director’s sensibility remains a bracingly offbeat one. The hesitant, awkward shuffling that once defined his actors’ speech patterns hasn’t necessarily gone away; it’s simply been absorbed into the spirit of the movie, which surveys its milieu and genre with a thoughtful, ambivalent eye.
At a little over 90 minutes, “Support the Girls” has the brash trappings, if not the longevity, of a “Cheers”-style sitcom, and its generous humor is always in productive play with a tough, flinty realism. There are lines in Bujalski’s script that might have felt right at home with a laugh track, but he mostly directs his actors to toss them off in a casual, offhand way. He does the same with his politics, which are easy enough to decipher but never feel belabored. The rock-solid rapport among Lisa and her colleagues, with Maci playing the joyous yin to Danyelle’s cynical yang, is the most convincing argument for female solidarity that this or any movie could muster.
Amid the excitement for Tiffany Haddish’s breakthrough performance in last year’s “Girls Trip,” Hall’s beautifully modulated star turn went largely overlooked, even though it represented its own kind of breakthrough for a performer too often shunted away from the spotlight. In “Girls Trip,” she played an author who made a fortune off the motivational mantra “If I will it, I can have it all.” In “Support the Girls,” Lisa is too hardened and resilient to harbor any such illusions, which is why it’s such a deep pleasure to watch her come roaring back to life.
‘Support the Girls’
Rating: R, for language including sexual references, and brief nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles