An unusual beauty pageant is the ostensible subject of Lysa Heslov’s debut documentary, “Served Like a Girl” – specifically, the Ms. Veteran America competition for former U.S. servicewomen. It’s an intriguing, nobly-intentioned event, but the pageant is ultimately an excuse to showcase a half-dozen quietly exceptional female veterans of the United States’ post-9/11 military operations, their stories variously hilarious and heartbreaking. Brassily shot, and assembled with no shortage of energy and humor, “Served Like a Girl” provides a close, emotionally vivid look at the often ignored female experience of the military.
Ms. Veteran America is the brainchild of no-nonsense Army vet Jaspen Boothe, who became an activist after suffering an astounding pileup of hardships. Shortly before she was scheduled to be deployed to Iraq, the single mother lost all her possessions to Hurricane Katrina, and was subsequently diagnosed with cancer. After being discharged, she found herself homeless, with the local VA advising her to apply for welfare. The pageant is in some ways the public-facing side of Boothe’s Final Salute foundation, which raises money and awareness for homeless female veterans – according to the film, the country’s fastest-growing homeless population.
“Served Like a Girl” tracks contestants during the pageant’s fourth year in 2015, and they run the gamut from the endlessly empathetic Rachel Engler, a former NFL cheerleader who witnessed horrors as a medic in Afghanistan; to bubbly optimist Andrea Waterbury, whose pair of ex-husbands appear to be happily raising the communal brood together; to a haunted Navy vet named Hope Garcia, barely holding things together as she crashes at friends’ homes and works as a ‘40s-style pinup model. Nichole Alred, a sharp-tongued tomboy from Alabama, frequently threatens to steal the show completely as she banters with her mischievously clever mother. Meanwhile, the pageant’s first winner, Denyse Gordon, and a double-amputee former contestant, Marissa Strock, are on hand to offer support.
The actual intricacies of the pageant itself are sometimes a tad vague, but Heslov makes it clear that winning is hardly the competition’s real objective. The film is at its best when it simply allows the women to tell their stories, giving their perspectives a rare platform. We’ve seen innumerable depictions of servicemen on shore leave over the decades, but this may be the first film to delve into the finer points of sneaking a vibrator into a warzone. More than that, there’s something undeniably empowering about watching these women reclaim and celebrate the elements of femininity which military culture has traditionally forced recruits to tamp down. Alred in particular is living proof that there’s nothing contradictory about being a hardened, Harley-riding badass and also getting excited about trying on a frilly evening gown.
Particularly in the earlygoing, the film sometimes strains to strike the right balance between the lighter competition drama and the very serious hardships faced by women soldiers, but never does the latter feel short-changed. Particularly wrenching is Garcia’s description of her rape while on duty, an experience she refers to as “MST” – or Military Sexual Trauma – which joins “IED” and “PTSD” on the long list of innocuous-sounding military acronyms for unspeakable horrors.