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(The 2017 SXSW Film Festival opened on March 10 and ran all week until March 18. HtN has you covered and GUARANTEE more coverage than any other site! Check out this review of Served Like a Girl  the directorial debut of longtime producer Lysa Heslov.)

From longtime producer (Bug) and first-time director Lysa Heslov comes a sweet documentary about women veterans and their efforts to support the growing number of their peers who are homeless. Heslov follows seven of these women as they prepare to manage or participate in an annual competition – Ms. Veteran America – which generates proceeds to help those homeless women veterans. We meet Nichole, Hope, Rachel and Andrea, each of whom hopes to win; Marissa, the co-MC, who lost both legs to an IED in Iraq; and Jas and Denyse, who together run the show. Each of them has a story worth telling, and the great strength of the film is how much these amazing women’s own thoughts and words dominate the narrative.

Nichole, whose lively mother seems to follow her everywhere, served six years in the Army and is a do-it-yourselfer, tough as nails but never afraid to laugh. Hope, very much estranged from her own mother, served ten years in the Navy. Suffering from PTSD at least partly related to two MST (military sexual trauma) assaults, she was placed on the Permanent Disability Retirement List, though despite this, she, herself, is homeless as the film begins, crashing with friends with her child in tow. None of which stops her from proudly sporting a 1940s pin-up look as a consistent fashion statement. Rachel, a former Redskins cheerleader and dancer, served in the Navy in Afghanistan, but now suffers from myasthenia gravis, a degenerative neuromuscular disease that she hopes will not keep her from competing for the title. Andrea served in the Army in Iraq for two years after 9/11, and remains in the Army Reserves today, working as a librarian while pursuing other studies. Marissa was one of only two survivors when an explosive blew up her Army Humvee, and now gets around in a wheelchair or a fabulous pair of prosthetic limbs. A former contestant runner-up, in 2013, she returns to co-host as the movie opens.

On the administrative side, there is Jaspen (or Jas, as she hates the full version of her name), a cancer survivor who served fifteen years in the Army and is the film’s equivalent of a Drill Sergeant. She brooks no nonsense from the contestants, calling up Hope at one point to threaten her with expulsion for posting some risqué photos online (while also complimenting her for looking so good, as a mom, that she can post such photos without embarrassment). She may be brusque on the exterior, but Jas is all heart, firmly committed to her mission to assist other women. Denyse is the 2012 winner of the contest, and served twelve years in the Air Force before becoming an Air Force Reserves Master Sergeant. Together with Jas, she makes it all happen. It’s important to note that this is not a beauty pageant, but a competition where the women – of all ages, shapes and sizes – display all kinds of talent, of the intellectual, artistic and athletic kind. Whoever ultimately wins, they are all genuine stars.

Unfortunately, while the women’s stories are profound, the filmmaking, itself, while adequate, is often merely that. The opening five minutes tantalize us with some unusual editorial choices and peppy montages, raising our hope that, aesthetically, what follows will be as novel as the narrative. That is not to be. It’s also a shame that the final plot development is not entirely supported by the footage we have seen up until then. Barring those flaws, however, the film, just by putting its characters on screen for all to see, is an otherwise stirring tribute to their service. And that makes it well worth watching.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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