Director Kitty Green’s first dramatic film, The Assistant, is the kind of release industry people will see, a festival darling that viewers outside of the industry will not connect with. It turns out that not only is the behind the scenes of filmmaking corporate as hell (say it ain’t so!), it’s boring, soul crushing grunt work in an office ruled by a serial sexual abuser. But as long as money is coming in, why bother changing how the sausage is made? Most of us know that an industry isn’t going to change its culture and practices as long as it’s profitable already and look to films about weighty topics to offer some hope or at least a solution for the main character’s predicament. And there’s no meaning except an impending sense of dread that nothing is going to change. The film is a documentary style day in the life of Jane (superbly played by Ozark’s Julia Garner), the assistant of an unseen and unnamed film executive. That Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of rape the week of The Assistant US-wide release may give this frustrating and fascinating film a bump in viewership.
Green shows us how abuse and sexual harassment in the film industry impact a different type of victim, the assistant that HR reminds us “is not his type.” Jane arrives at work shortly after sunrise and does the drudge work of the office- tidies up, makes the coffee, fixes paper jams, makes sure everyone has the updated printouts and schedules (that are changed on a whim), restocks bottled water and her boss’s injectable erection medicine and disposes of the sharps properly. There’s zero accountability for Him, the unnamed and unseen boss. He’s free to continue his last-minute schedule changes, his drug use, and his affairs regardless of who they impact and how. Jane will literally put on rubber gloves and clean up the mess.
Garner’s Jane is riveting- nuanced, we see her react and change in her microexpressions, in her withdrawn body language, in the defeated set of her shoulders. She is the only burst of color in an otherwise gray film — a rose pink modest blouse. When people want to get her attention, they throw a wadded piece of paper at her face and expect her to respond cheerfully. She’s ignored unless she’s in the way, then she gets a glare and meekly moves on. She plays well with Green’s documentary style of filmmaking.
Two assistants, unnamed males (Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins), treat Jane like a pet or like a servant. They make her take all the wife’s phone calls; they don’t share in the cleaning duties or picking up lunch, they don’t work late or work weekends. Their misogyny isn’t tacit, it’s standard operating procedure. They coach her (gaslight her?) through several apology emails in the film. Other women employees flat out ignore Jane, leaving their dishes on the counter and moving around her to have a conversation.
I appreciate what Green was trying to do- show the impact of workplace harassment on the lowly assistant and the larger culture. The film does accomplish those things but they fall short for many viewers as there’s no solution or clear character story. We see Jane’s reactions, responses and Garner is excellent. We do not see any change in her for better or worse. She stays in the position, why, exactly? It’s her first job out of college. Her immediate boss is a serial sexual abuser and harasser and the entire company knows and doesn’t care. What goal is so alluring that you’ll tolerate being ignored on the job, cleaning up fluids from your boss’s couch and having your co-workers throw wadded paper at you to get your attention? We’re told Jane wants to be a producer. We are not told why and the film suffers for it.