This review was originally published by its author Sam Sewell-Peterson on SSP Thinks Film.
The Assistant (2019/20)
Director: Kitty Green
Screenwriter: Kitty Green
Starring: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, John Orsini, Noah Robbins, Kristine Froseth, Mackenzie Leigh, Purva Bedi
There are plenty of films about the artistic side of filmmaking, but very few about the business side of the industry and next-to-none about the mountain of daily office work involved in actually getting films made. Kitty Green’s The Assistant is one of those rare films, not to mention that it hosts important discussions about abuse in the workplace, the dark side of the entertainment industry and gender inequality. It’s also one of the best films of 2020 so far.
Jane (Julia Garner) is an assistant to a powerful movie studio executive – the smallest of fish in the biggest of ponds. Her daily work routine involves making everyone else’s lives easier by taking on any and all undesirable jobs that come up, from clearing the carnage left from meetings to taking coffee and sandwich orders, arranging transport and organising hotel stays for her boss. She even wipes down the casting couch and fields calls from her boss’s wife. When she becomes convinced of her employer’s predatory behavior towards the latest young woman who walks through the door, she goes to HR for help.
Jane’s story stands for so many. She is one of the innumerable people working at the very bottom rung of the ladder in a massive industry, the type of person who is assigned all the crappiest jobs even by those who are (at least on paper) their equals. She’s walked all over, simply because those “equals” are lacking any consideration for others and live off the privilege of being male. Jane isn’t just at a disadvantage because of her gender, but also because she is a decent, accommodating person. Her employers know that, because she is a hard worker and a good person with thoughts about her future, she can be manipulated to toe the company line if she decides to make her boss’s latest infraction an issue.
This isn’t a Weinstein exposé, but Jane’s unseen boss has something of the infamous movie mogul about him. We see Jane sponging down a couch in her boss’s office and opening the latest invoice for his dry-cleaning. She has to field calls from his wife because her male colleagues refuse to do it. She has to apologise to her boss verbally and then by email multiple times for interfering in his personal life when again her colleagues leave her no choice. Said colleagues then also have the audacity to lean over her shoulder to tell her exactly how to do it.
The centerpiece of the film is an agonising conversation between Jane and a HR representative (Matthew Macfadyen) who not only ignores her legitimate concerns about a new arrival to the company, but makes explicit threats to her career prospects and essentially admits that the problem she is reporting is a problem, but not one that people should talk about. He starts off seemingly supportive, but then begins to condescendingly pick apart her grievance and play to her ambition and self-esteem.
Just as Jane is the keystone of her office, Julia Garner is the keystone of The Assistant – she’s in every scene and the camera rarely leaves her face, thus never shying away from her character’s living experience. Her expressions convey a litany of micro-emotions as her colleagues and superiors emotionally and psychologically assault her, and she uses everything she has to not let it show and to somehow carry on.
Multiple times over the course of the film we see Jane leave the building to walk down the street on one errand or other, and each and every time we are praying she keeps walking. She may not have been a victim of her boss’s sexual advances as many other women were, but there are many kinds of equally despicable workplace abuse. The Assistant is a stunning piece of work that unflinchingly tells a story of everyday life and everyday abuse in an industry that isn’t changing fast enough. It is an essential watch.