‘Served Like a Girl’ Review: Doc on Female Homeless Vets Struggles With Tone

A look at a beauty pageant for female veterans mixes undeniably powerful stories with superfluous fluff

Served Like a Girl

In “Served Like a Girl,” a documentary that sheds light on the disproportionate number of homeless female veterans, viewers might question why director Lysa Heslov ends the film with a soldier talking about sparkly high heels.

Surely, one last sobering thought could have been expressed during those valuable final seconds, one that would have served as a better transition to the ensuing title card informing viewers that, at the time of filming, there were more than 55,000 homeless female veterans. The group is the fastest-growing homeless population in the U.S.

Other parts of the third act wobble, too. Yet considering that “Served Like a Girl” follows the Ms. Veteran America pageant, an event created by vet Jas Boothe to raise awareness of her comrades with no fixed address, we already know that the women profiled here happily embrace their ultra-feminine sides and are no less badass for it.

Boothe is referred to as a “community crusader.” She had difficulty while she was deployed, having pain in her shoulders and neck but unable to talk about them because she’d be told, “This is why women shouldn’t be in leadership positions.” Turns out Boothe had cancer. Then she had difficulty when she was discharged — “into the street,” as she puts it.

She had nowhere to stay, and the VA had nothing to offer women. “I don’t qualify for nothing, there’s nothing available to me, and it’s strictly because of my gender,” Boothe says.

Boothe’s story is, of course, both angering and nearly impossible to process: How can any vets be treated so shoddily after this 14-year period of occupation and war? Hence her activism in the form of the pageant.

But Boothe’s goal wasn’t only to raise money; she also wanted to present to the public strong women who can be seen as role models. Thus Heslov smartly reveals Boothe’s experiences after we we hear those of five other vets — some of them single mothers who are struggling financially themselves — as they get ready for the competition.

One is a double amputee; another developed an autoimmune disease at age 27. The military, at least at first, was a way out of poverty or a path away from addiction for a few. Some women’s parents (or their parents’ striking absence) are included in their stories, regardless of whether the relationships are positive or a burden.

The weight of the finalists’ experiences, one of which includes sexual assault, is offset by the fun of the regional pageants the vets won to get to the finals, as well as their hunt for evening dresses or getting their hair and makeup done. Heslov, making her debut, therefore largely does an impressive job balancing the contestants’ deeply disturbing stories (the sexual-assault victim remarks, “The woman is normally wrong because it’s her fault for drinking too much”) with the near giddiness they express while getting dolled up. It’s infectious.

But then the director goes for contrivance and fluff. Here are the women playing paintball; PTSD be damned! Here’s a totally superflous tangent about the unsolved murder of one vet’s father. Here’s a surprise mother-daughter reunion set to a ukulele version of…Radiohead’s “Creep?” Surely there was some bitter mixed with the sweet there, but not to the tune of “I’m a creep/I’m a weirdo.” It distracts from the moment.

“Served Like a Girl” proceeds like a sports movie, leading up to the big event. There’s a lovely scene with an elderly female Coast Guard vet saying a few words to the contestants, but mostly we see the show. The brilliant smiles and positive energy recall the reason that one vet, a onetime NFL cheerleader, gave for being excited about the pageant. Of having felt restricted, style-wise, after joining the military, she says, “I’m G.I. Jane. I can’t be feminine anymore.” It’s not exactly the Army credo, “Never leave a fallen comrade.” But it does explain why Heslov thought it important to let a vet talk about her sparkly shoes.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story erroneously stated that the filmmakers staged a reunion between one of the participants and her mother. TheWrap regrets the error.