The American writer-director Andrew Bujalski emerged from the movement known as mumblecore - the Noughties variant of the Weinstein-reinforced indie boom of the 1990s, engineered by a ragtag of creatives with far less disposable income to work with. Starring family, friends and non-name performers, Bujalski's early works (Mutual Appreciation, Funny Ha Ha) weren't so much movies as mixers, overseen by a keen-eyed sociology student trailing multiple theses on how people now meet, whether cute or otherwise. (The films received enough good word to carry them over the Atlantic, but there were equally those who preferred their cinema a little more professional.) With increased funding, Bujalski has been able to expand his fieldwork beyond the bedsit and the corner coffee shop, and start exploring the possibilities of where people might meet: some kind of proto-Comic-Con in 2013's Computer Chess, a gym in 2015's Results (his first production to employ recognisable faces), and now, in this week's Support the Girls, the Hooters-style sports bar Double Whammies, staffed almost exclusively by women, frequented more often as not by men. In its day-in-the-life set-up, the new film presents as not unlike Kevin Smith's scuzzy indie landmark Clerks revisited from a 21st century perspective. Once again, we encounter the everyday problems of a somewhat careworn establishment (an overnight break-in, a personnel change, the opening of a rival enterprise), but this time round, the fairer sex occupy more prominent positions, there's diversity hiring, and a sprinkling of lo-cal sweetener atop every portion of dialogue, where the incorrigible Smith offered salt.
As the lunch crowd gives way to the dinner rush and then last orders, Bujalski busies himself finding new angles on different types of gal, as if he were Howard Hawks shooting pictures of disparate hombres in one of his saloon-movies. The ever-sympathetic Regina Hall plays the bar's manager Lisa, obliged to deescalate where necessary and hold things together as best she can; Shayna McHayle, the rapper professionally known as Junglepussy, brings a wiry energy to the familiar role of Danyelle, the single-mom waitress who brings her son into work; Orange is the New Black's Lea DeLaria represents the butch trucker trade; and lesser tables are worked by a cast of apple-cheeked newcomers, Haley Lu Richardson among them. Support the Girls can't really go anywhere - the location came first, everything else is secondary - but as it tracks these women in second gear, it serves as a continuation of the amiable hanging-out that was a feature of Bujalski's first films: it's as if he's just happy setting up his camera in the corner booth of an establishment where one of the house rules is "No Drama" to watch the world and its waitresses go by, all the while listening to the same handful of pop and country songs that play on a loop in such places.
Occasionally, we spy a flash of something more. Having Danyelle's son prop up one end of the counter suggests a day at Double Whammies might be a formative experience teaching us something of the fraught and harmonious ways in which men and women interact. (There remains something academic about the Bujalski oeuvre; collegiate, too.) A visit from uptight franchise owner Cubby (indie talisman James Le Gros) punches up some of the labour tensions in play behind the scenes. Via a cumulative effect, we do take away a sense of these birds as swans: all grace and elegance up top and out front, but using their tired legs to paddle for their lives. We also realise that, as mumblecore alumni go, Bujalski is basically the happy medium. He's never been drawn to the balls-out extremes of Joe Swanberg (who left movies behind to make Easy for Netflix) or Amy Seimetz (who herself moved into TV with the extraordinary The Girlfriend Experience), and his work lacks the formal polish of his contemporary Alex Ross Perry (whose Her Smell opens here soon). His sound recording remains brutally rough, a liability in a film so predisposed to talk; scenes go on far longer than they have any right to be; and we get the creeping sensation, particularly amid the chaotic final act, that his rambling non-structure might collapse entirely were it not for model pro Hall doing her level-best to retain our patronage.
Against all that: he remains sincerely interested in people and the places and situations they find themselves in. (His Achilles heel here may be the attempt to pack too much into one representative day.) The approach results in Support the Girls' one truly great, inexplicably funny (doubtless because fundamentally truthful) episode: a shot of a nearby smoothie bar offering a healthy alternative to Double Whammies' high-carb staples, and all but empty save for one somnolent employee pulling the dullest afternoon shift anyone could possibly be forced to work. (So dull, in fact, that this zomboid mango-crusher can't wait to interrupt the conversation Lisa has with the colleague who's retreated there.) Anyone who's entered the workforce in the years since Reagan and Thatcher came to power will have been there, or thereabouts; the kind of menial labour that already seemed dead-end in Clerks has here turned slacker still. Nonetheless, Bujalski doesn't seem the type to push a sociopolitical point, and so he shambles on past it, towards a shruggingly upbeat ending. The filmmakers of the Nineties indie boom made their films with long careers to look forward to, whether or not they were fully deserving of them; their successors, born of a vastly more temporary moment, compile theirs for leisure and pleasure alone. Whether you come to Support the Girls for fun or consolation, there's a little of both here.
Support the Girls opens in selected cinemas from today.