A trio of films that feel like they embody that Austin/SXSW feeling of individuality and quirky, left-of-center characters found their way into my schedule over the last few days. Another theme has emerged this year as I have seen a remarkable number of really great performances in not-so-great movies. I liked the work of Ben Foster & Elle Fanning in “Galveston,” Olivia Wilde in “A Vigilante,” even the cast of “Blockers” more than the movies themselves. And these three films feature performers who are almost impossible to dislike, including Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, Michael Kelly, and Taylor Schilling.
The best of the trio is Andrew Bujalski’s deceptive “Support the Girls,” a comedy about one of those semi-sleazy watering holes in which the waitresses all wear midriff-exposing shirts and short shorts. This one in particular is called Double Whammies and it’s an independently owned place in Houston. Bujalski opens his film with shots of cars on freeways, hinting that this is one of those little places most people pass on their way to somewhere else, but a vast majority of “Support the Girls” takes place in Double Whammies on one particularly eventful day.
It starts with Lisa (the phenomenal Regina Hall), the manager of Double Whammies, crying in her car in the parking lot. She’s going through a rough patch. The restaurant isn’t doing very well, she hates her boss (James Le Gros), and there’s drama at home. The day begins with job interviews, which allows Bujalski some narrative leeway to lay down how places like this work. A favorite of the regulars, Maci (the delightful Haley Lu Richardson) even displays how she laughs a certain way to make the male customers happier and espouses the value of a touch on the shoulder in getting an upsell to their “big-ass” size of beers.
“Support the Girls” is largely episodic, as Lisa goes about a bad work day. First, a man gets stuck in the vent trying to break into the back room to get to the safe. Getting him out knocks the cable out. Lisa stages a car wash to raise money for an injured one of her girls. One of their new hires (Dylan Gelula) doesn’t seem to know where the line is in terms of using her body to get bigger tips. Most of these episodes are funny; all of them feel genuine. Bujalski has an incredible ability to take situations that would be sitcomish in someone else’s hands and make them feel genuine and character-driven. He seems increasingly fascinated with how a workplace or profession shapes personality, which is a part of “Computer Chess” and “Results” as well. The workplace at Double Whammies has created something of a family, a sisterhood of people who have to deal with asshole men all day, every day—it’s telling that their best regular customer is a woman (Lea DeLaria). Bujalski very subtly plays the gender politics of “Support the Girls” until his fantastic ending, where he gets back to those freeways and allows a trio of characters who we’ve come to know and really like to primal scream. Before you can support ‘em, you have to hear ‘em.
Another film about makeshift families that premiered at SXSW yesterday was Laura Steinel’s funny and smart “Family,” starring Taylor Schilling as an uptight executive who has become defined by her awful job. Kate Stone is hated by all of her co-workers, mostly because, as she puts it, she says what others are thinking but won’t say out loud. She tells her pregnant colleague at the office baby shower that she’s probably not coming back after she has a kid; she mocks her assistant for letting her brother move in with her; she ridicules another co-worker (Matt Walsh) after his son is caught “hurting animals.” And yet Steinel and Schilling are very careful to not make Kate into too much of a cruel character—she’s more just socially awkward, and one can tell she’s not particularly happy with her life anyway, which makes her journey more engaging.
That journey starts when Kate’s brother calls and tells her that he needs her to take care of Kate’s 12-year-old niece Maddie (Bryn Vale). Kate hates kids and initially refuses, but she inevitably moves in for a few days, and draws closer to the also-awkward Maddie, who has few friends, can’t tell her parents she wants to do karate instead of ballet, and is called Maddie Beef at school because she farted once. While Kate is loosening the parental restrictions on Maddie, the girl meets a young man at a gas station who calls himself Baby Joker, and the two become friends. Baby Joker is a Juggalo, and if you don’t know what that is, well, you’re in for an awakening.
“Family” doesn’t break new ground in terms of structure or storytelling but it has interesting characters, brought to life by very talented people, including Kate McKinnon and the great Brian Tyree Henry of “Atlanta” in supporting roles (seriously, start putting Henry in everything now if you could.) It’s well-paced and avoids feeling manipulative in its mocking of outsiders or even Juggalos. The Juggalos are fans of the band Insane Clown Posse and they would tell you that their fandom has created a makeshift family better than their biological one. “Family” is about finding whatever that word means to you wherever you can, and further appreciating the one you already have. It’s a hard movie to dislike.
Less successful, despite the great work from its leading man, is John Hyams’ “All Square,” starring the great Michael Kelly of “House of Cards.” The character actor steps into the spotlight as John Zbikowski, a small-town bookie struggling to make ends meet. His clients aren’t paying up and the internet is taking away most of his business. After a one-night stand (with Pamela Adlon's Debbie), John meets her 12-year-old son Brian (Jesse Ray Sheps), and the two become unlikely friends. When John learns that Brian is playing Youth Baseball, he has an idea—lines on little league games. It’s not something the internet is doing and he can corner the market. Of course, this couldn’t possibly end well.
Kelly is solid throughout “All Square,” but the movie hits too many familiar beats to be memorable. It’s one of those character dramas in which we can see all the narrative twists coming before the people in the story figure it out, and none of these people are particularly interesting enough for the film to work as a pure character study. So while "All Square" is not an entirely unenjoyable ride, it’s all a bit too thin.