Searching (2018)

Directed by: Aneesh Chaganty Written by: Chaganty and Sev Ohanian

SearchingFilm reflects reality, and with cell phones and social media becoming an increasingly prominent part of our world, a film like Searching was inevitable. It is a movie entirely set on screens. Its prologue is presented via files and chat messages sent on a PC. As the film progresses it becomes more traditional in its aesthetic, however, all the scenes remain on-screen somehow: they are shown on webcam feeds, online videos, a camera viewfinder, etc.

Film’s commitment to depicting contemporary technologies can have mixed results. At times new technologies are depicted as they facilitate unique kinds of stories (eg Ingrid Goes West and Eighth Grade). At other times, however, these technologies seems to make it onto the screen simply because they are “in.” Searching doesn’t quite fit into either of these boxes. At times I felt its commitment to being all on screen was a gimmick. Much like “3-D” I noticed the schtik for a few minutes and then forgot about it. At other times, however, I found the movie to very much be a commentary on its featured mediums.

Searching is the story of a father, David (John Cho) who comes to report his daughter Margot (Michelle La) missing. When asked to help Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) with the case by providing details about his daughter’s life, David begins to worry that he does not know his daughter as well as he would have liked. He thus logs in to her social media accounts and begins to try and identify who her friends are.

I suppose the reason part of me wants to dismiss Searching’s all-on-screen approach as a gimmick is that, independent of its technological elements, Searching is a very well constructed thriller. It is replete with provocative red herrings and well-placed details of relevance (and seeming relevance) along its way. The film’s ultimate theme (I can’t be too specific without spoiling it) is parent-child relationships. Searching does not end as say Ingrid Goes West does, in a way that truly cements it as a tech era fable. I was thus left asking, why did it all have to be on screens? Is it mere tribute to the ever-growing church of the smartphone?

Upon further reflection, however, I came to appreciate the observations Searching makes on internet culture, even as they may not be the film’s defining feature. One recurring character in Searching  uses violently vulgar language on his social media pages. While one might expect this character’s rhetoric to have subtext, it ultimately doesn’t; and thus the film shows how truly vacuous online nastiness can be. On a related note, the film also depicts the stark difference between how people express themselves online and in person, and shows the various ways in which this can be very disorienting for those who don’t know how to balance cyber and non-cyber realities. Perhaps most importantly, the film illustrates how the internet allows all people, teenagers included, to expand the depth and detail of their private lives. Thus David, despite being a “good” father: someone who is affectionate and attentive, is left with the feeling he doesn’t know his daughter well: the internet makes this so.

If I were to quibble about anything, perhaps I would argue that Searching’s antagonists are not as fleshed out as they could be, as the film’s reliance on suspense necessitates keeping details about these characters in the dark. Even this, however, is meant as a mild and speculative critique, as given the constraints of the genre, the film actually does a decent job of developing all of its personalities. Overall, Searching draws a nice balance between engaging plot-development and topicality. And necessary or not, the distinct aesthetic doesn’t hurt either.

 

 

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Dead Women Walking 2018

Written and directed by: Hagar Ben-Asher

DEAD-WOMEN-WALKING.png

I knew I had to see the final film of the Montréal Black film festival because of its subject matter. I’ve long been deeply disturbed by the death penalty and this film: a series of vignettes about women on death row, clearly shared my disturbance. I knew little else about the film going in however, and it’s unclear what exactly its future is.

Dead Women Walking is structured around time: ie each one of its vignettes features characters at moments closer and closer to their executions. Each vignette has a plot arc, but the arcs can be said to be structured more around a feeling than an action. Therefore, as I watched the vignettes I felt they had something to be desired. Occasionally their dialogue felt overly expository, but I don’t think this was their main problem. Rather, the core shortcoming of the vignettes was their lack of ability to manipulate audience emotions. Because we know each scene is about death row, the fact that the film’s characters are there is not shocking. And because each vignette is short, rarely do they raise the stakes for the character much beyond where they were when the scene started. The result is vignettes that in theory should be very compelling, yet offer little in the way of a dramatic roller coaster.

That was my reaction at least as I watched the movie. As I sit to write this, my view has changed somewhat. As I went to sleep after seeing the movie the names of the fictional condemned women: Donna, Wendy, Helen, Ruth, Dorothy, Celine, and Beck haunted me. I saw them cry, speak to their child-like vulnerability, mother, yearn with love, and walk with the indignity of having their legs manacled. The thought that these women would shortly be strapped down and willingly killed by prison staff (regardless of the fact that they were fictional characters) disturbed me to no end. And as I had these thoughts I realized that Hagar Ben-Asher had succeeded in creating vivid, individualized figures and haunting scenarios (particularly the Wizard of Oz bits and the Nina Simone scene), even if at first glance they seemed unsatisfyingly short and repetitive.

The film also deserves credit for advocating for its subjects while almost entirely avoiding the “they might be innocent argument.” Only one character’s innocence is hinted at in a non-committal way. Some characters are presented as victims of abuse and addiction, while others are presented with their motives entirely under-analyzed. While I’m not sure I buy the view of one Rotten Tomatoes critic that this film “opens the mind through sight”(I think a painstakingly nuanced movie about a single character rather than a selection of vignettes is necessary to do that), it is a great example of a work that advocates for the view that all human beings are loveable and deserve love.

A final point of note with this film is its exploration of the concept of the banality of evil. While it features stereotypical southern champions of the death penalty and a couple of bullying corrections officials, it largely presents workers in the correction system as borderline-friends of the inmates, making it all the more disturbing that they are employed to escort these people to their deaths. Also featured in the film are members of a parole board who reaffirm one character’s death sentence: the speakers on the board are a white (but not southern) woman and a black man: again not who you imagine when you think of upholders of the death penalty.

Dead Women Walking is haunting and as such I’m not sure whether to recommend it or not. For opponents of the death penalty it can be a touching and tragic experience, but I’m not convinced it offers enough in the way of character development to show tough-on-crime-type-thinkers the limits and cruelty of their perspective. To my fellow bleeding hearts, I guess the most honest thing I can say is “watch at your own risk.”

We the Animals (2018)

Directed by: Jeremiah Zagar Written by: Zagar and Dan Kitrosser 

We_the_Animals.pngI was deeply frustrated with the closing shot of We the Animals. I also found it very beautiful. One school of thinking on such a reaction would say that I should defer to the positive reaction: something that is frustrating but beautiful can be understood as a beauty that just takes thinking to appreciate. I’m open to the possibility that I simply haven’t thought enough about We the Animals (and admittedly I haven’t read the Justin Torres novel it is based on), but I would say I’m fairly confident in my ambivalence about that scene, a reaction that sums up my relationship to the film.

One of We the Animals’ strengths is that it is a deeply sensorial movie. We hear pencil scratches as red bursts onto a child’s page. The camera often aims down showing the soil and water the characters’ feet traverse, while also taking care to show the technologies of their world. As a film based on a semi-autobiographical story this approach makes sense: nothing quite spells nostalgia like a careful recreation of the colors and textures of one’s life.

This sensorial quality goes well with the films title. The movie is “animalistic” in that it asks up to appreciate places and events but not words. The film’s title, however, is also where my criticism stems from. An easy way to understand the title is that it refers to the film’s protagonist, 10 year old Jonah (Evan Rosado) and his two slightly older brothers, Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel). The boys often walk around shirtless and find ways to survive in their unstable household. Once the movie really gets underway events take place that plainly make this interpretation come to fruition, but these events are then reversed with plenty of film left to run.

Once Jonah, Joel and Manny’s animalistic state is interrupted the film never quite picks up again. This is not to say it doesn’t have memorable moments (it has plenty), but they stop feeling like they add up to something. At this point the story is no longer one that pits the three “animals” against their parents (Raúl Castillo and Sheila Vand), but rather Jonah, to varying degrees against the world. This feels an odd decision in a story called We the Animals: at best it’s a tale of We the Animal. And this is a problem even before the film moves away from Jonah’s brothers, for while the film does feature important brother bonding moments, it makes no effort to define Manny and Joel as individuals. When they stop being relevant in their role as Jonah’s brothers, their status as titular animals becomes entirely forgettable.

The closing shot of We the Animals depicts the forest surrounding the family’s house from the air. As I said, it’s striking, but I also don’t get it. It could be said to represent Jonah’s smallness in a big world, yet given that his family’s lives are not restricted to their immediate, forested surroundings, this imagery does not feel particularly fitting. It’s beautiful, but I don’t get it: and I can’t help but assume that We the Animals offers a kind of indie realism (coupled with a little magical realism) where there really is nothing to get.

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Directed by: Spike Lee Written by: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Wilmott and Lee, 

BlacKkKlansmanGoing into BlacKkKlansman I knew the film had been the subject of a public exchange between Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley, and the film’s own director Spike Lee. I opted not to read the exchange before seeing the movie and I think that was the the right decision. I’ll elaborate on that later.

BlacKkKlansman opens with a depiction of a southern political figure filming a racist rant (with stylistic reference to Bill O’Reilly’s “fuck it we’ll do it live” clip). The film’s main story than begins with the caption “this joint is some fo’ real, fo’ real shit.”

I should clarify that while I’m glad I didn’t read the Boots Riley-Spike Lee exchange before seeing the movie, I’m glad I knew it happened. BlacKkKlansman’s (second) opening scene is one of its strongest, and it bears decent resemblance to the opening of Sorry to Bother You. Both scenes depict job interviews, border on fourth-wall breaking and address social issues. Furthermore, the characters in both scenes do not suppress themselves, instead cooly acknowledging the social dynamics at play. In the context of BlacKkKlansman, this sets up a quasi-cartoonish affect (the cartoonishness of Sorry to Bother You isn’t subtle).

The film’s protagonist, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) does not come across as your typical cop. Rarely seen in a uniform, his out-of-placeness is immistakable. This is one of the reasons why the “this is some fo’ real, fo’ real shit” tagline is important. Through this seemingly cartoonish depiction, Lee and Washington portray just how out of place a black cop can feel and how subversive hiring a black cop in Colorado Springs in the 1970s was (or at least could have been).

The film quickly depicts Stallworth’s emergence on the force. He is seen working in a files room where he expresses discomfort with the dehumanizing way his fellow officers talk about (black) convicts. He eventually works his way up into the intelligence unit, only to find out that this line of work involves spying on black activists. Black KkKlansman however is merciful to its protagonist, giving him the conviction and luck to work his way out of these assignments and into a position where he can do what he wants (and what he seemingly joined the police to do): to spy on the Klan.

The middle of the film introduces Ron to Black Panther-inspired Black Student Association leader Patrice (Laura Harrier) and a number of Klan members (Jasper Pääkkönen, Ryan Eggold and Paul Walter Hauser). Patrice is a bit of caricature, and the Klan members, while not caricatures, can feel cartoonish, especially from the perspective of a naïve liberal viewer. The Klan cast is further embellished by the presence of one of their folksy but equally racist wives, Connie (Ashlie Atkinson). As Lee builds the universe of 1970s Colorado Springs, we are introduced to one larger-than-life event after another and again it is all “fo’ real.”

In addition to working as a compelling aesthetic, Lee’s “you wouldn’t believe this shit”-realism also sheds an interesting light on the present. The film makes numerous unsubtle allusions to the Trump era, and while that in itself may not make for original satire, what  the script cleverly does is expose the evolution of racism from the over the top rhetoric of the Klan do the dog-whistles of Trump: in other words it shows how shit you wouldn’t believe becomes shit that’s all too believeable.

Overall BlacKkKlansman is an enjoyable work, though I believe it wavers a bit in what its vision is. Unlike some of Lee’s other works it follows a dramatic and conventional plot arc. Given its topic one might think its writers had an Oscar-esque vision(it’s worth noting Lee did not write the original pitch). This clashes a bit with what I see as BlacKkKlansman’s more Sorry to Bother You-like (perhaps Brechtian) vision. Lee’s version of Ron Stallworth is a black man who joins a police force, despite knowing all to well that that is a bad idea. On top of that, this character seems to do so with the sole vision of using his police powers to fight racism, trying to avoid less comfortable police assignments like narcotics and spying on radicals Stallworth, in other words, is an amusing, though topical, comic-book hero. This part of his character is undermined by the Oscar-y side of BlacKkKlansman. Near the end of the film, Stallworth confesses that he’s always wanted to be a cop. With this line we’re robbed of an understanding of Stallworth as a gutsy activist who uses a police job to achieve his own heroic ends. Instead we’re told what we’ve watched is the liberal feel-good story of a cop who made his dreams come true and made a police department a little better.

Not all of BlacKkKlansman’s more Oscarish elements are for the worst. The film’s secondary protagonist, Officer Phillip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) forms an unlikely bond with Stallworth as he comes to realize the ways he is both white and not-white in the eyes of the Klan. While his moral development is subtle, he is undoubtedly one of the film’s most compelling characters. Also interesting is the Klan member who ends up being the leading villain: a character driven not so much by the Klan’s ideology but by a search for validation from one of its members.

I said at the beginning of this review that I’m glad I knew about the Riley-Lee debate but hadn’t read it before seeing the movie. I knew that Riley was unhappy that an anti-racist film could portray police in a heroic light, and in some ways I found that to be a valid criticism. The film includes a minor subplot about a “bad apple” cop, arguably distracting from the view that police department racism extends beyond individuals. Otherwise, however, I came up with what felt like a satisfying defence of Lee’s approach. There’s a scene in BlacKkKlansman in which Patrice says she is ok with black cops in blacksploitation films because these characters are “fantasies.” I read this scene as a wink to the audience about BlacKkKlansman’s intent: to create a serious movie, but one with a cartoonish hero whose tale is not representative of cops in general.

When I looked up Lee’s reaction to Riley’s comment, however, I was disappointed. The reaction was seemingly a single line in an interview in which he said “look at my films, they’ve been very critical of the police, but on the other hand I’m never going to say all police are corrupt.” This kind of response misses the point as to why many see the police as an innately racist institution. The systemic racism of police forces is based on the following premises:

  • The police are an institution whose mandate is to enforce laws and security and therefore they spy on (often racialized) organizations they suspect are too critical of the status quo.
  • Police forces largely developed to control protestors, enforce slavery in America, etc, rather than to “serve and protect” the public. This mandate may have evolved over time but its hard to think it does not continue to (consciously or not) influence the collective mentality of police forces.
  • Cops are hired to arrest people and occasionally exercise other forms of violence. Therefore, even if they aren’t all consciously racist, they aren’t likely to be hippies either.
  • Certain kinds of crime (eg theft) may flourish in marginalized communities since marginalization creates need. Therefore, police who regularly patrol these communities aren’t “bad apples” per se, but they nonetheless re-enforce the alienation of marginalized people from society.
  • Finally, police forces as currently constructed are key actors in an incarceration based justice system. Incarcerating people, again, further alienates them from society and traps them in cycles of poverty and violence.

 

In short, Lee’s argument that not all police are corrupt may in a way be true, but it dodges the deeper ideological issue that Riley hints at in his criticism.

Riley argues that contrary to the film’s claim BlacKkKlansman is not “fo’ real.” He notes that the real Ron Stallworth appears to have been less critical of mainstream police work than his fictional counterpart and that Phillip Zimmerman didn’t exist, amongst other things (I’ll link to Riley’s criticism here, but note that it contains spoilers). To me the question of whether this matters depends on whether you chose to separate the art from the artist (or at least the artist’s recent, presumably oversimplified, portrayal of his belief). BlacKkKlansman, judged as a film in isolation is not nearly as pro-cop as Riley suggests. Its hero crew (Stallworth, Zimmerman and Jimmy Creek) often hang out in a side room of their own, dressed in street clothes, reducing the degree to which you think of them as cops.  Additionally, through characters like Patrice and Kwame Ture aka Stokley Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), BlacKkKlansman undoubtedly portrays radical critiques of the police in a sympathetic light.

            BlacKkKlansman has funny moments, Where’s-Waldo-moments (spot the brothers of two famous Hollywood actors, and Eric Forman from That 70s Show) and ends with a powerful illustration of the Klan’s contemporary legacy. It’s absolute worth seeing, just remember to have a nuanced view of when it’s “fo’ real” and when it’s “a fantasy.”

 

Skate Kitchen (2018)

 Directed by: Crystal Moselle Written by: Moselle, Jen Silverman and Aslıhan Ünaldı

263825R1Genre-wise Skate Kitchen is a film in the same vein as another recent release, The Rider. Both are the products of directors who immersed themselves in communities, recreated those communities on camera, and cast actual community members as stars. On top of that, both are stories of riding (horses/skateboards), and both feature characters who try to forbid the riding. In Skate Kitchen the rider is Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a high school senior(/recent graduate (?)) and passionate skateboarder, and the “forbidder” is her mother, who after Camille suffers what appears to be a relatively minor injury tells her she is forbidden to skate. Camille subsequently takes a train to Manhattan where she quickly befriends an all-girl group of skaters she discovered through Instagram.

The experience of watching The Rider and Skate Kitchen is similar. Both are celebrations of landscapes and feel particularly fit for viewing on the big screen. What differentiates the two films, however, is that Skate Kitchen is a piece with two acts. While the plot of the film’s first act has some qualities in common with The Rider, the film’s second act takes it into entirely different territory. Having glanced at other reviews before seeing Skate Kitchen, I’d noticed that some labelled it a feminist movie. Unless these critics were really taken in by the one scene in which the skaters discuss the concept of gas-lighting (a good reflection of how political vocabulary has taken a foundation in otherwise apolitical millennial and generation-z spaces) I imagine the film really garnered its feminist label from the fact that it is a Bechdel-test-passing, serious movie in which a group of girls form a community and engage in athletic activity.

With that in mind, I couldn’t help but begin to draw mental parallels between Skate Sandlot_posterKitchen and The Sandlot. The latter is a popular kid’s movie in which a group of 11-year old boys bond over their pickup baseball league. The Sandlot is certainly no feminist-flick: its female cast is limited to a generic mom-figure, and a lifeguard who one of the boys tricks into kissing him. The Sandlot also tried to improve its gender-politics with a sequel (The Sandlot 2) that featured three girl players, but unfortunately, two of them were background characters, and the film as a whole felt so contrived that the one who wasn’t a background character was not exactly memorable either.

Nonetheless, the idea of a good-version of The Sandlot aimed at girls feels like an important idea. Despite the film’s flaws, The Sandlot manages to be a pleasant celebration of comradery, immaturity, urban legend and passion-for-a-sport. Skate Kitchen is all of those things (albeit for an older audience), and on top of that, it manages to be socially conscious and thematically serious.

But there’s one strong quality that the The Sandlot has, that Skate Kitchen lacks. Cleverly mirroring the experience of baseball fandom, The Sandlot has two heroes: an everyman narrator who many viewers can relate to (Scotty Smalls), and another character who Scotty emulates and who ultimately completes the film’s heroic objective (Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez). The Sandlot may celebrate comradery within a flawed boy-community, but a big reason it makes this work is that Benny is the exception to this community’s rules. While the other boys bully Scotty for his lack of athletic skills, Benny, the best player of them all, helps coach him. And while Benny never does anything explicitly feminist in the movie, he at very least doesn’t come across as someone who, like his teammate Ham Porter, would scream “you play like a girl!”

Skate Kitchen does not have a Benny-figure. Instead, it features Camille both as its vulnerable narrator and its moral decision maker. This is not in and of itself a problem: again, the Scotty-Benny dynamic in The Sandlot is a unique one, and furthermore, the girls of Skate Kitchen are generally speaking far nicer than the boys of The Sandlot. Nonetheless, as Camille comes into conflict with her crew members toward the end of Skate Kitchen, the lack of a Benny-figure (or some other solution) felt like a real shortcoming.

Camille is defined by having a lot of dualistic traits. She is poor, but she lives in suburbia. She is the well-behaved, soft-spoken member of her friend group yet her story is defined by her rebellious streak. Similarly, she comes across as reasonable and agreeable, yet she constantly feels inclined to flee the people in her life all-together. All in all she is sympathetic and vulnerable, but most importantly feels like the only member of her crew who has three-dimensional thoughts and emotions. In the film’s most heartbreaking moments, she feels like the one reasonable character in a sea of immaturity and un-nuanced anger. Yet somehow, because Skate Kitchen is a celebration of comradery, it is not her group-members or other characters, but Camille who is ultimately compelled to grow at the end of the film. Messaging-wise, this didn’t sit right with me..

Skate Kitchen has a lot going for it. It’s lively, colourful, realistic, dark and funny. Similar to The Florida Project it features a cast of largely amateur actors teamed up with a single star (Jaden Smith) in a memorable, but supporting role. I suppose my one issue with it is how it holds up as an inspirational piece (whether it aspired to be one, I can’t say). On the one hand, it envisions how variously marginalized youth can escape into their own solidaristic communities, but on the other hand it also shows the degree to which membership in such communities can require unpleasant conformity. Of course it’s good and right for filmmaker’s to depict imperfect realities: the problem is when they seem to want us to accept them.

Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018)

Written and directed by: Christopher McQuarrie

MI_–_Fallout.jpgOccasionally I push myself to challenge my biases and go see an action movie. Sometimes, maybe it’s a mood thing, I somehow find myself enjoying them. Mission Impossible: 6 was one such movie. I now find myself trying to figure out what was appealing about it. Part of it no doubt was that protagonist Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) was accompanied by two less macho sidekicks (Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg)), making it endearing in much the same way as Disney animated movies.

The sidekicks as individual characters, however, are not all that memorable. Dunn is a good-kind-of-misfit in the work and is part of a couple decent gags, but there’s not much to write home about him. Stickell meanwhile is charming and a subtler misfit, but again, he’s nothing to write home about. Luckily, these characters are not the be all and end all of the film’s comedic elements. Mission Impossible 6 is, of course, ridden with fight scenes. While many of these can be described as performances of traditional action ambition, I could not help but get a whiff of comedy out of some them. There is one scene in which Hunt and CIA Agent Walker (Henry Caville), fight an enemy target in a bathroom. The fight seems easy at first, but when it is disrupted by some immature, passerby men, the enemy suddenly regains form. What proceeds from there is an extended sequence in which a high stakes, high tech fight is somehow carried out with fists and a urinal pipe.

The subtle comedy of Mission Impossible 6 is complimented by its surprisingly high dialogue to action ration (at least in its first two thirds) as well as an absurd sequence in which plot twist after plot twist is thrown upon each other (eventually its gets absurd, but it’s largely an engaging moment). None of this is enough for me to describe Mission Impossible 6 as a comedy, but comedy is certainly an ingredient in the Mission Impossible stew.

And ingredients, are what I think makes this movie work. It’s a film that offers a little bit of something for everybody, and even if those somethings aren’t always top notch, they give the film an engaging enough texture to make is exiting for those who might be bored by other action flicks.

Mission Impossible 6’s little-bit-of-everything approach is largely effective, but it creates odd results as well. The film’s villains are described as anarchists, and in the opening scene, one rants at Hunt & crew with delirious, but moral conviction, insisting they share his manifesto with the world. The idea that these characters are idealists is repeated throughout the film, yet it’s never fully developed. Meanwhile, Hunt & co. ignore their ideals, treating and discussing them as purely evil beings. It is as if the film’s writer thought: a lot of viewers want to see complex and sympathetic villains, but a lot more viewers just want a tradition good-vs-evil smash-off. The result is that the film caters a bit to both crowds. As I said, this approach works: the supposed complexity of the villains no doubt left me a bit more engaged by the evil, even as the logical part of my brain was left frustrated by the fact that the villain’s motifs were never properly elaborated on or made truly sympathetic.

The character of Hunt is similarly written as complicated-but-not. An early tension in the film is that Hunt values the lives of his friends even when doing so could compromise his mission. This supposed idealism puts him at odds with the CIA. While this detail comes across as potentially interesting when raised at the beginning and end of the film, it also feels phoney as it never really describes Hunt’s character. He comes across as a largely generic, calmly calculated, cool-with-violence action hero.

Mission Impossible 6 is, in short, a bit fraudulent. I use that word as an observation not an insult. It is undoubtedly very good, but parts of its quality comes from the fact that it poses as a “smart movie.” It is not ,ideas wise at least, a deep work, but it goes to show that sometimes even hinting at having ideas can make your movie effective. At the same time, it leaves me longing for a Mission Impossible like movie that could be as ambitious about its themes as about its stunts.

Support the Girls (2018)

Written and directed by: Andrew Bujalski

Support_the_GirlsIn one sentence Support the Girls is a story about a Hooters (known as “Double Whammies” in this story) told in the absence of the male gaze (not literally given who the writer/director is). This premise alone is enough to make it an interesting work. The film’s protagonist is restaurant manager Lisa Conroy (Regina Hall) and much of the movie follows her adventures: handling a break in, supervising a servers’ kid (Jermaine Le Gray) and dealing with the restaurant’s abrasive owner (James Le Gros).

One of the film’s strengths is its cathartic performance of empathy. Given the film’s setting: a niche place in the service industry aimed at profiting off of male lust, one might expect Double Whammies to treat its staff horribly. Lisa, however, “supports the girls” as most evidenced when she insists a customer leave after he makes a “joke” about one of the servers being fat. As fans of the character Juan from Moonlight or Gabo in A Fantastic Woman well know, a well placed empathetic line, underlined by unstated social commentary, can really make a scene or even a movie.

On the flip side, Lisa’s empathy is inevitably limited by her circumstances, and perhaps by her sense of duty, as someone in a management role. She is involved in two firings over the course of the film, and while she handles these about as well as she can, this shows the limits of making a manager your hero. This is not to say that all movies should be tailored to have the perfect ideological message, but rather to get at a more apolitical criticism I have with the film.

Perhaps this is not a problem if you go into Support the Girls without expectations. In my case, however, the film’s premise led me to expect a film with the intensity of a low-end comedy, made better through being more principled and being more politically self-aware. I was disappointed however, to find that despite all its chaos, the first ½ to 2/3 of Support the Girls somehow comes across as understated. This is why I think it’s a shame that Lisa’s empathy wasn’t even more radical. A scene in which a manager offers a reference letter to a flawed employee is just a scene. A scene in which a manager actually comes up with a way to keep an even more flawed employee on staff, by contrast, would substantially liven up the film and its supposedly chaotic universe.

Support the Girls ultimately embraces its chaotic potential in it’s final third. And while it’s final two scenes are not as chaotic, they nonetheless complete the film in a satisfying way. I can’t say too much about it, but it gets at how the Hooters/Double Whammies industry really is a universe of its own.

Support the Girls tells stories about characters that might otherwise not be told, and might certainly not otherwise be told in as respectful a light. Are there ways it could have been more radical? Yes. By centreing its story around a manager it maintains a distance from Double Whammies actual workers. Of course, this approach has its benefits (particularly in the penultimate scene). Still, I can’t help but wonder what the film could have been like if it embraced its zany potential.