Everyone has had the big dreams in which their career will go and know that they will have to struggle at the start to get there. But what happens when you are hit by the boss who has zero positive qualities and has built an environment where workplace menaces are able to thrive around every cubicle? This is where Kitty Green takes us in the excellent The Assistant.
Jane (Julia Garner) is a recent college graduate and aspiring film producer, who has recently landed her dream job as a junior assistant to a powerful movie mogul. Her day is much like any other assistant’s, but as Jane follows her daily routine, she grows increasingly aware of the questionable behaviour of her boss toward her female peers. She decides to take a stand, only to discover the truly insidious nature of the system into which she has entered.
The lack of details throughout the story works heavily to its advantage. At no point do we learn the name of the boss, we are given the chance to fill in the blanks and that is rather enjoyable and refreshing from a viewing experience. It is rare that the audience gets so much mental freedom within the story of a film. Also by learning so little about those around Jane, we get the opportunity to fully focus on our lead character and feel for every negative instance that occurs throughout The Assistant.
Let’s not beat around the bush and despite the film having many people who are less than savoury the focus, of course, is the boss and the person who inspired said invisible character.
What alarms more so is how people of this power have been able to allow and actively encourage such toxic work environments in their companies. Make no mistake, while this is a fictional story it resonates fact throughout. Anyone who has been in a remotely negative work environment will remember personal examples of what Janes experiences in this workday. The lower the rung you are the worse you have it until someone comes in below you. An endless circle of hate and abuse that is rarely if ever broken.
Other than the obvious themes of the film, it is also refreshing to see the story told from the lowest levels. There are countless films that depict the cutthroat antics of executives, but that cutthroat nature has to start somewhere, it doesn’t just start when at the top. It is nurtured and here we see where the seeds sow, right down at the bottom rung. What is so disheartening about The Assistant isn’t that we feel pity for Jane, is that we know there are tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of women like Jane. In a multitude of businesses throughout the world experiencing this exact same thing and that the likelihood that they know that they are just spokes in the wheel and unless they adapt and accept to this toxic world, they will fall by the wayside and never make it to the success that they deserve.
A lot has been said about the slow nature of the film, but this is essential for the audience. This is the type of film that needs to go that half a pace slower. We do not need to see the pace quicken to a run when we get closer to the end, this is, like everything the head of this production company does is methodical. The opening scenes showing the menial tasks that Jane does every day showcase this. Do not expect a rapid-fire movie, this is one to make you sit and understand.
Without being discourteous to the rest of the cast, this is basically a one-woman show on how to hold your composure when all you want and need to do is break down. Julie Garner as Jane is phenomenal and without a doubt, there will be many people who will relate to this character and with every action, she takes throughout the film. The subtlety of Garner’s performance is almost haunting, never giving too much away to her co-workers and thus the audience, providing politeness and even when being lambasted down the phone, has to keep the knowledge that she is being watched and thus cannot fully react how she needs to mentally and emotionally. What makes the performance work so well is in how little she does audibly. It is a very physical performance, but not in an obvious way. Garner’s performance was helped by the research for the script that writer-director Kitty Green provided.
Using interviews of past and current assistants in the industry, Green was able to fine-tune the script to the essentials. There is no melodrama here, there is no B plot, this is the story and it envelops you from the off. Kitty Green delivers an excellent minimalist film that really does affect you. Showing the audience how easy it is for not only an industry but businesses to hide what happens in their buildings and to show culpability by everyone involved, to the point where they are desensitized by it.
As mentioned previously there will be instances in the film that will resonate a memory in people’s minds of a similar instance in their work life. Indeed thanks to second-hand knowledge of partners work life for a company there are areas that are worryingly similar, the little sprinkles of praise that are constantly wrapped around, that harsh treatment is a way of toughing her up, while colleagues of a similar or even lower level are covered with praise. For women like Jane, it is better to try and be invisible and keep your head down than to make yourself noticeable to everyone around you. A desperate survival technique that in no way should have to be utilised, yet it is, too often.
Businesses have a long way to go to right the ship and it will take a very long time for us to get there. In the meantime, we have the #MeToo movement and films like The Assistant to remind us to keep fighting for progress. Minimalist but terrific, this is essential viewing.
Drama | USA, 2019 | 15 | DVD | Vertigo Films | Dir. Kitty Green | Julie Garner, Matthew Macfadyen