In the ramshackle comedy Support the Girls, the owner of a failing "breastaurant" recounts advice he once got from his father: The first time you have an instinct to fire someone, you should do it.

"Bless his heart," says Lisa (Regina Hall) the on-thin-ice manager to whom the remark is directed.

It's a wonderful line reading by Hall, who gives it just the right note of irony — Lisa knows where the power resides in the relationship, but she also knows when to risk some carefully calibrated insubordination.

This is another fine performance from Hall, who's given a good character to play by writer-director Andrew Bujalski. Lisa is crafty, resourceful, humane. When she lets something slide at the restaurant because she's "feeling generous," a worker says, "You're always generous." He says it twice, because it's true. It's also true that generosity might cost Lisa her job.

"All I wanted to do today was one good thing," she says at one point. On this day, it's a benefit car wash. She has asked a few of her "girls" to come in early, staging a car wash to raise money for a waitress who's missed shifts because she's been abused by her boyfriend. A nice gesture — and technically illegal — and when the owner (James Le Gros) shows up unexpectedly after a fishing trip, she's in hot water.

Lisa has learned to swim in it. She’s working to patch up a marriage to a man suffering from depression, and at work she performs Herculean tasks of human engineering — standing with finesse between the police who remove a burglar from the ventilation system and the undocumented immigrants who work in the kitchen. When a worker (Shayna McHayle) shows up with a sick child, Lisa finds informal day care. She is den mother and drill sergeant to a small family/army of young women who work at Double Whammies, a strip-mall pseudo-Hooters where young women in push-up bras and painted-on smiles serve Big Ass Beers.

Lisa enforces and bends the rules, which for legal reasons are often unwritten. Such as the Rainbow Rule — no more than one black waitress per shift — which the owner halfheartedly defends as a "guideline" aimed at increasing diversity, an Orwellian feat of semantics that can only exist in a place where the other unwritten rules prohibit dissent.

As bad as the owner is, Support hints that things are likely to get worse. A corporate chain  — Mancave — is moving in, and promising to take the worst practices of Double Whammies and make them formal, institutional, national. "We like to make the job idiot-proof," says a Mancave recruiter, capturing her company's view of its workforce.

Support the Girls is not an ax-grinding movie. Its understanding of minimum-wage workforce reality translates into a disarming look at the precarious life of the low-wage worker. In this arena, Lisa has survived and thrived by being smart and uncommonly decent — traits returned to her by loyal staff (like Columbus' Haley Lu Richardson). She's smart enough to see that she's expendable, even if her employees disagree.

"It makes a difference when your boss really cares about you, when your boss really cares about her customers," says a waitress, a line that should be taught at Wharton before the class moves on to short-term shareholder value.

It also makes a difference that Hall is in this role. She brings a unifying strength and emotional substance to a movie with a scruffy-charm comic tone and rambling episodic structure.

She is helped here and there by supporting players. McHayle is funny as ambitious waitress Danyelle. In her other life, McHayle is also a rapper, but you'll have to Google her because her stage name cannot be printed in this newspaper.


Support the Girls

  • Directed by Andrew Bujalski. With Regina Hall, Shayna McHayle, James LeGros, and Haley Lu Richardson. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
  • Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.
  • Parents guide: R (language, sexuality)
  • Playing at: Ritz at teh Bourse