A debut drama feature from documentarian Kitty Green (who wrote, directed, produced, and edited The Assistant), this a genre-defying ‘day in the life of’ story taking aim at workplace bullying and sexual abuse. After premiering at 2019’s Telluride Film Festival, The Assistant also made waves at Sundance… and for good reason.
Jane (Ozark’s Emmy-winning Julia Garner) is a young ambitious assistant in her first graduate role at a film production company in New York, who dreams of becoming a producer. She’s first and last in the office, makes everyone’s travel arrangements, collects lunches, and take the angry phone calls from her boss’s wife. Early on, Jane receives such a call from her boss telling her to stay out of his personal affairs after she resisting lying to his wife, yet she’s also expected to clean up his office… where she finds earrings in the carpet, syringes in the bin, and stains on the couch. Jane writes him an e-mail apologising and reiterates her gratitude for the opportunity to work for him.
Despite her many menial tasks, the stress of Jane’s daily life is palpable. It feels like at any moment the smallest of mistakes could get her fired or shouted at, or at least be made the subject of cruel office banter. Disturbingly, her boss’s out-of-office affairs are the subject of crude jokes amongst Jane’s superiors—alluding to the fact many people in Hollywood were aware of Harvey Weinstein’s heinous acts.
It’s when a new assistant Sienna (Kristine Froseth) starts at the office that Jane’s alarm bells really start ringing. Picked up by her boss at a convention in Boise, Idaho, with no experience whatsoever, this new assistant is put up at a hotel. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why, but when Jane takes her concerns to the company’s HR rep, she’s rebuffed. Besides, she’s told she has nothing to worry about because “you aren’t his type.”
Her boss’s presence is felt throughout the movie. He practically seeps onto the screen like a hidden boogeyman who knows what’s going on in every corner of his company. His muffled voice is often heard from inside his office, shouting down the phone at Jane, or reading words in e-mails to her. He’s strict and harsh with her because she’s “good” he tells her in one message, but he wants her to be “great.” A driver lets slip to Jane that he thinks highly of her. Seemingly by accident, we wonder if her boss did this on purpose, for his praise is just as big a part of her manipulation as the bullying and abuse.
Although The Assistant might be fiction, it tells a story based on many true stories. It’s interesting that Green conceived of this project as a film about consent on college campuses back in 2015. It was only when the Harvey Weinstein scandal erupted two years later that her focus shifted. “I had a lot of friends who worked in the film industry for men like him,” she told The Irish News, “and so I started interviewing my friends about their work environments and whether these work environments were supportive of women, how many women were in the offices, how were they treated, how were they promoted, how gendered were these environments.”
The Assistant isn’t breezily entertaining. It requires full and undivided devotion, but it’s a rewarding journey that reminds us the #MeToo movement hasn’t fixed the problems it exposed… it only made us more aware of them. At the centre of it is an excellent performance from Julia Garner, whose few lines of dialogue are made up for with her reactions, gestures, and how she carries herself. It’s the anxiety on her face when someone calls her name, or her tired expression when she gets a moment to call her dad to wish him a belated happy birthday near the printer. Less is more with The Assistant.
USA | 2019 | 87 MINUTES | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Kitty Green.
starring: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Noah Robbins & Jon Orsini.