Served Like a Girl manages to inform the audience about its important subject matter in an always engaging way while also telling an entertaining story with as many twists and turns as one might find in a fictionalized counterpart. (There’s enough dramatic material here to warrant one of those doc-to-fiction adaptations.) To capture this story in such a natural and uncompromising way, while also wrapping it around a well-paced narrative, is a remarkable achievement, especially considering that this is director Lysa Heslov’s first feature-length project.
The doc’s raison d’etre is to take the long-discussed issue of women’s roles in the military and put human faces to the debate, profiling a group of female veterans from various branches of the military (who served in Iraq and Afghanistan) candidly talking about their experiences, proud moments, frustrations and tragedies, while addressing many of the questions and discussions—most of them pedantic and juvenile, to be honest—that have been hovering around their service. A recent argument regarding whether or not women are suitable to fight on the front line comes as a surprise to one of the four main veterans followed in the film, Marissa Strock, who lost both of her lower legs to an IED outside Baghdad.
While making sure never to sidestep serious issues, Heslov also has a lot of fun asking her subjects to address some of the more ridiculous questions posed by men when it comes to women serving in combat zones. How they handle their periods? The quick answer is, according to one of the film’s subjects, to step out of the Humvee and nonchalantly change your tampon in front of a bunch of male soldiers like a boss. Hey, if you’re willing to kill and get shot for your country, you should be able to handle seeing some menstrual blood. And when it comes to the all-important issue of where to conceal your vibrator in case it’s found and disposed of during a barracks search—apparently, a dildo counts as contraband; the things one learns every day—almost every one of the girls has their own foolproof hiding spot.
Served Like a Girl would have worked satisfactorily as a series of narratively disconnected interviews with its heartfelt subjects, as well as their relatives and friends (the brutally honest mother of one of the veterans deserves her own reality show). But the doc also provides a surprisingly tight three-act story, centered on these women competing to become the next Ms. Veteran America in a pageant created by founder Jaspen Boothe to help the many homeless female veterans across the nation who are otherwise discarded once their terms have ended. The competition allows an already successful project to transcend its documentary trappings.
Emulating traditional heartwarming movies based around a bunch of plucky underdogs doing their best to better themselves and their community, Heslov and her team present a real-life counterpart to favorites like Pitch Perfect and Bring it On—but with badass soldiers performing intricately choreographed dance numbers as part of the talent portion of the pageant. The whole thing miraculously comes together like a finely outlined screenplay. The first act introduces our characters, their goals and dreams, while also laying down the stakes and hurdles they have to face if they want to win the pageant. The second act is the inevitable training section, complete with a montage set to T-Rex’s “Bang a Gong.”
There’s even an attempt at a second act break, where the future looks the bleakest right before we get to the climax. What would an inspirational story like this be without a rousing third act, where the women give their all for a chance to win the prestigious title, culminating in a breathtaking dance performance that floors the judges? Served Like a Girl approaches its subject matter with notable humility and respect, but never shies away from bringing out the drama of these women’s everyday lives.
Director: Lysa Heslov
Release Date: August 25, 2017