To be patriotic means to express devotion to and show vigorous support for one’s country. Which is exactly what is expected of anyone choosing to be apart of U.S. defense: patriotic.
But what about a country showing rigorous support for and devotion to its defenders? Its protectors? What about when our vets come back home?
That is the question that Lysa Heslov’s heart-wrenching documentary “Served Like a Girl” poses. It gives a harsh look at the realities of being deployed, surviving trauma and living through the inequalities of serving as a woman. And then it gently leads you to asking why women veterans are not getting the support they need when they need it the most.
With its blend of tactical editing, exceptional scoring and focused cinematography it tells these women’s remarkable stories and leads us to defining the true meaning of patriotism and the power of resilience.
And breathtakingly resilient is exactly what these women are. The film, although not the most beautifully shot, follows them closely and focuses on the challenges they have faced since returning home from deployment, respectfully. Heslov gets the women to dig deep, all the while keeping it lighthearted by choosing following them as they prepare for the Ms. Veteran American competition.
Everything from health issues, to PTSD, sexual trauma, depression, anxiety and homelessness are discussed and Heslov positions herself carefully so as to catch those moments where they may falter, shed a tear or take a moment to break down, but to also capture the moments where they build themselves back up, crack a smile or tell a joke. It is magnificently empowering to watch these women go from one moment to the other.
And although the film advertised itself as focusing mainly on homelessness and the pageant, we forgive the false advertisement, because Heslov and her team paint a wide stroke to show us just how large and expansive the issue of mistreatment and lack of support really is.
The broadness of the film’s focus shows a clear indication of Heslov’s complete lack of ego and willingness be open to whatever story this documentary may end up telling. With a clear focus on personal stories, well-timed comic relief moments and a meticulous score that accompanies each emotional moment, we allow it. We become invested in these women and let the team take us to wherever as we revel in these women’s stories and root for them ’til the end.
And it’s because Heslov shows to us from the very beginning that these women are worth rooting for. Within the first few minutes of the film we are whirled through perfectly juxtaposing shots of women in combat and women preparing for a pageant; we see dazzling dresses next to shiny guns, bullets after lipstick, camo before sparkles; primping one minute and push-ups the next. Just ten minutes into the film and we are completely enthralled in and supportive of the bada–ery of these women.
The display of female resilience, of these women’s determination to share their stories, is woven into every aspect of the film with Rachel Ingels saying, “I guess it takes a woman to do the job of two men;” Nicole Alred narrating removing and replacing a tampon crouched between two Humvees; and then Major Jas discussing how she trained through extreme pain – that later turned out to be cancer – never wanting to seem inferior to the men.
Heslov and her team step back and let us hear these women talk the talk and then walk the walk. The film shows us poignant moments of vulnerability, it shows us these women’s willingness to push through challenges – cancer, homelessness, a father’s murder, separation from their children, lost limbs, extreme anxiety, depression and medical diagnosis – and leaves us on a triumphant, though troubled, note. We become devoted to them, yes. Patriotic, definitely.
But so much so that when the credits roll we angrily ask ourselves, where is America? Where is the nation these women devoted their lives to when they need its support more than ever? Heslov and her team never turned a blind eye. They made sure no woman was left behind. And that is patriotic.
Written by Asli Shebe.