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Support The Girls is the touching Obama-approved film about breastaurants

Andrew Bujalski is the ‘godfather of mumblecore’ and his riveting film goes deep into the emotional complexities of the breastaurant business, with rapper Junglepussy in a starring role

A breastaurant is exactly what you think it is. A scantily-dressed woman takes your order, she laughs at your terrible joke, and then she serves you burger and fries with a smile that’s part of the job description. Yet despite the unapologetic sexualisation of the female wait staff, American chains such as Hooters and Twin Peaks pride themselves on their supposed family-friendly vibe. Unlike, say, a strip club, breastaurants encourage customers to bring their partner and children. After all, you’re never too young to learn about the patriarchy and society’s fucked-up sexual politics.

At Double Whammies, the fictional sports bar of Andrew Bujalski’s witty, nuanced comedy-drama Support the Girls, the employees are all too aware of the exploitation. In pink crop tops and short shorts, the young women – including Maci (Columbus’s Hayley Lu Richardson), Danyelle (rapper Junglepussy), and Jennelle (Her Smell’s Dylan Gelula) – perform their roles with zero complaints. Likewise, the mostly male customers seem more concerned with the hotness of the food than of the half-naked humans serving it. On one hand, it’s capitalism, sexism and gross workplace practices squeezed into one greasy, pervy building. Yet if the waitresses believe it’s worth the generous tips, who’s to stop them?

So for 90 minutes, Support the Girls delves into the emotional and ethical complexities of the breastaurant business. Structure-wise, Bujalski’s smart, understated script spends a day in the life of Double Whammies’ exhausted general manager, Lisa (Girls Trip’s Regina Hall). Effectively the film’s hero, Lisa expresses genuine compassion for her staff, and in return is considered the glue for her workplace family. Yet as a cog in the machine, Lisa is inadvertently perpetuating the company’s negative practices. For instance, her boss, Cubby (James LeGros), establishes a policy that only one black woman is allowed per shift, while the breastaurant’s number one rule – “No drama!” – is a double-whammie warning for anyone speaking up against inequality.

All of which is to say that Support the Girls is absolutely riveting and presents no easy answers. Since its world premiere at SXSW last year, Bujalski’s sixth feature has amassed a cult following and was named by Barack Obama as one of his favourite films of 2018. “It’s hard for me to imagine Obama sitting down and watching it,” Bujalski jokes over the phone from his home in Austin, Texas, where the movie was shot. “Maybe he watched it on fast-forward. I feel like he does things very efficiently. I was actually embarrassed, because there were 15 movies listed, and I’d seen maybe half of them. I was like, ‘How does this guy have more time to stay current with indie cinema than I do?’”

Although the feminist film’s timely release may seem like a response to Trump and #MeToo, Bujalski penned the script several years ago. In fact, he pitched it as a TV pilot even further back at the request of Hollywood agents. “It was a great blessing that no one wanted to make it at the time,” Bujalski explains. “I think I grew up with a movie brain where it’s hard for me to understand a story unless I can end it. In a weird way, some of those sitcom elements survived into the movie. It might just be a very perverse sitcom.”

Bujalski, often referred to as the “godfather of mumblecore”, first broke onto the scene in 2002 with Funny Ha Ha, a lo-fi drama shot for $50,000. Several of that film’s crew members – including Eric Masunaga, the sound mixer, who coined the term “mumblecore” – have stuck with Bujalski over the years, meaning that the team behind Support the Girls double as a loyal workplace family. Is this breastaurant comedy subconsciously about the movie business? “It’s not something I set out to do,” the director says. “But my experience informs everything I sit down to write. I’ve done at least three movies about small business owners, and that for sure has to do with my experience with indie filmmaking.”

“It’s not interesting to sit in a dark room and feel like all you’re getting is being told that it’s bad to treat people wrong, or racism is bad, or sexism is bad. That’s all true, and it’s often worth repeating. But to me, it’s not a movie” – Andrew Bujalski

The truth is, Support the Girls relates to every profession, regardless of the uniform. It raises thorny issues about labour rights, the power of vulnerable workers grouping together, and whether everyone’s complicit to some extent – all without being a message movie. “It goes beyond the political, and into moral philosophy,” Bujalski notes. “In a way, every movie I’ve done has been about: how do we treat each other? As you say, it’s not a message movie. To me, it’s not interesting to sit in a dark room and feel like all you’re getting is being told that it’s bad to treat people wrong, or racism is bad, or sexism is bad. That’s all true, and it’s often worth repeating. But to me, it’s not a movie.

“A movie has to be about finding characters in whatever situation they’re in, and whatever struggles they’re going through, which are usually with themselves, and observing that behaviour. It’s not worth viewing if it’s not specific. Those are the interesting stories to me. The questions that I don’t know the answers to are the ones I want to ask.”

Subsequently, Bujalski empathises with all the characters, including the customers. The diners exhibit their own distinct personalities, and it only takes a few seconds to recognise their dynamics with specific waitresses. Not that Support the Girls is Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo. It is, rather, a story of sisterhood, led by an ensemble of women whose individual stories are each worthy of their own film. I would gladly watch a spinoff feature about Krista (AJ Michalka), an employee sacked for applying a gigantic tattoo of Steph Curry’s face onto her midriff.

That said, it’s Hall’s movie, and in a fair industry she would have been nominated for an Oscar. As a consolation, in December, she became the first black woman to ever win Best Actress at the New York Film Critics Circle, beating Olivia Colman and Glenn Close to the prize. As Hall has mentioned in interviews, Lisa’s grounded demeanour couldn’t be more different from her characters in Girl’s Trip and the Scary Movie franchise. But Hall also stands out amongst Bujalski’s actors – before 2015’s Results, a bizarre romcom about personal trainers, the director stayed away from anyone remotely famous.

“On my first four movies, I worked with people who maybe had never acted before, and maybe were never going to act again,” Bujalski says. “But then the last two movies I’ve done have been about body image industries. I knew professional actors would relate to it.” Again, I’m wondering if Support the Girls is about the movie business: both sell the illusion of beautiful people in ordinary situations. “Well, I think anybody who’s worked professionally as an actor knows exactly what it’s like to walk into a room and feel you’re being judged on physical traits, and not the content of your soul.”

“I think anybody who’s worked professionally as an actor knows exactly what it’s like to walk into a room and feel you’re being judged on physical traits, and not the content of your soul” – Andrew Bujalski

In comparison, Funny Ha Ha is aggressively honest with relatable, everyday characters. Kate Dollenmayer, who plays 24-year-old Marnie, was a friend of Bujalski’s with zero acting experience. Described by the director at the time as an attempt to shoot a French New Wave movie, Funny Ha Ha unfolds episodically with Marnie in every scene: she struggles with an unsatisfying temp job, she crushes on a disappointing dude, and like everyone else she’s trying to find her place in the world. There are no conventional beats or life-changing moments; it’s simply a lo-fi character study, imbued with warmth, humour and impeccably awkward social encounters. 

The “ums” and “ahs” of Marnie may be more influential than you realise. In a 2010 interview, Greta Gerwig praised Bujalski as the “Chekhov of cinema”. That year, in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, Gerwig’s character repeatedly references an unseen friend called Marnie in a pivotal monologue. Two years later, Frances Ha, another French New Wave tribute, sparked rumours that its title was a direct homage. “It’s not a conversation I’ve had with them,” Bujalski says. “But that’s an extraordinary movie. Coincidentally or not, I’m happy to be associated with it.”

In the final moments of Funny Ha Ha, the sound cuts off mid-conversation. In the Blu-Ray booklet, novelist Tao Lin observed: “This ending was like reading a story or poem that ends at the bottom of the page where I’m supposed to turn the page, then turning the page and learning I already read the last line.” Likewise, Support the Girls bows out on a perfectly imperfect note. The ending, which I won’t spoil, has proven popular enough that it’s inspired memes and a tribute Twitter account. It’s my favourite scene of the film with one reservation – it’s conceptually similar to one of the most obnoxious moments in Garden State, one of my least-favourite films of all time.

“I had a moment of anxiety,” Bujalski admits. “It was between the writing and shooting that it occurred to me that it might be too much of an echo. So I went to YouTube, I watched that scene, and I felt OK about it. Everything we’re doing, and the context, is a different world. So we went for it.” I mention that it demonstrates the gulf between an artist with care, vision and knowledge of the craft, and a director like Zach Braff. But Bujalski’s too polite to say anything damning.

Bizarrely, Bujalski also has the sole screenplay credit on Disney’s upcoming Lady and the Tramp, a live-action remake starring Tessa Thompson and Janelle Monae. Whereas indie filmmakers are usually brought on for punch-up work (for instance, Baumbach and Charlie Kaufman, respectively, on Madagascar 3 and Kung Fu Panda 2), Bujalski’s multiple drafts were later reconfigured by in-house writers. “I’ve worked on a few Hollywood projects,” he says, vaguely. “But this was the first one where they were actually motivated to make the movie.”

It was on the strength of Results that Bujalski was hired by Brigham Taylor, the same Disney producer who picked Alex Ross Perry for Christopher Robin. “If it wasn’t for [Brigham], I wouldn’t even get into the room to talk to Disney corporate brass. It’s his quirkiness. He’s a guy, like Barack Obama, who keeps surprisingly up to date on indie film.” I dare Bujalski to say something negative about Disney, but he’s unable to. “It was scary. Instead of waiting six months to hear from anybody, I’d hear from somebody a few days later. It was an intense way to work.” 

Next up for Bujalski, in terms of scripts he’ll actually direct, there are a few he’s already written. “It’s been a strange year for me,” he says. “I’ve got a bunch of ideas but I’m taking a while to commit. I promised myself I would figure my life out in June, which is now half over.”

One can speculate that his next non-Disney project will continue in the socio-political vein of Support the Girls, a film that’s seemingly introspective about his country. After all, breastaurants are a distinctly American phenomenon – the UK equivalent would be grabbing brunch at Stringfellows or eating a packet of crisps in Abercrombie & Fitch. If Funny Ha Ha was Bujalski’s attempt to do a French movie and Mutual Appreciation was his version of Italian cinema, is Support the Girls his most American movie?

“It’s all too American,” Bujalski laughs. “I don’t know. Support the Girls is an odd mishmash, and it isn’t intentionally steeped in the dreams of cinema history in the same way. It’s a very contemporary movie. The world is changing so much. Movies are changing so much. I was trying to respond to what was around me. I don’t know if cinema has anything to do with what’s around me these days.”

Support the Girls is out in cinemas on June 28