I had heard nothing but good things about Kitty Green’s feature film debut “The Assistant”. Unfortunately the COVID-19 outbreak cut short its theater run well before it made its way to many of the smaller markets. So I’ve been anxiously waiting for my chance to finally check out this #Me Too era drama that attempts to tackle head-on the long unchecked problem of workplace harassment.
Kitty Green had a couple of documentaries under her belt but was inspired to venture into feature films following the 1997 Harvey Weinstein revelations. After much study on workplace harassment she began writing the script for “The Assistant”. Unlike last year’s “Bombshell”, a movie smitten with its bomb-throwing at the expense of its characters, “The Assistant” feels far more rooted in truth and calibrated to a real-world setting that leaves you both unsettled and infuriated.
The film follows a young woman named Jane played by the remarkably restrained Julia Garner. She’s only five weeks into her new job at a movie production company working as an assistant for a big-time Weinstein-ish film mogul. We learn all we need to know about him through her observations, from secondhand grumblings in the office, and his verbally abusive and patently unfair scoldings over the phone. In one of Green’s many interesting touches, Jane’s boss is never seen or named. The allusion is obvious but by not showing him Green allows us to put a face on the man. Also, it keeps the story’s focus where it belongs – on Jane.
But nothing is more informative for the audience than the workplace environment Green shrewdly creates. The story takes place over the course of one work day starting with Jane’s early morning commute from her home in Astoria to the offices in Manhattan. She is the one responsible for getting to work early, turning on the lights, booting the computers, and starting the coffee pot. Interestingly she’s one of three assistants but hardly on equal ground with the other two, both smarmy males. She’s the one expected to wash dishes in the break room, empty the trash, and pick up lunch – chores often unfairly relegated to women.
Green takes us through the day nearly free of dialogue. What we get comes mostly in the form of office chatter surrounded by the ambient sounds of clacking keyboards, copy machines, and telephones. But it’s far from weightless. So much can be gleaned from Green’s sharp focus and purposely icy point of view. The indignities, disrespect, and condescension start subtle but add up and take full form as the movie goes on.
The one dialogue-rich exception comes when Jane goes to see the company’s Human Resource officer played by Matthew Macfadyen. What follows is a scene dripping with discomfort and anxiety as his disarming sincerity quickly gives way to a slyly manipulative and coldly calculated shift of blame. It’s one of the best written scenes of the year and both Garner and Macfadyen come at it with just the right balance. Neither overplay or underserve the material, conveying the scene’s meaning with masterful restraint.
More on Julia Garner – she’s a revelation here and the movie doesn’t work without her precise and measured performance. Critically acclaimed for her role in the Netflix series “Ozark”, Garner is tasked here with being our eyes and ears while also defining her character, not through the usual dramatic storytelling, but through what she experiences onscreen. It’s a tricky part but from the very beginning Garner puts us in Jane’s shoes and maintains a sense of empathy throughout.
“The Assistant” may be low-key but its message is loud, clear and profoundly relevant. Kitty Green has created a timely, hard-hitting drama free of Hollywood gloss￼ and anchored in the real-world experiences too many women are forced to endure. Don’t misconstrue the film’s observational perspective with slowness. Green takes a very calculated approach to her subject and the results are candid, insightful, and eye-opening.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS