The Assistant (2020)


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Film: “The Assistant” (2020) is Kitty Green’s first non-documentary directorial debut (though, she made “Casting JonBenet” in 2017). Taking her meticulous affinity for research and realism, she creates an unnerving thriller that dissects the intricacies of the types of workplace environments that allowed people like Harvey Weinstein to do what he did; allowed the sexual harassment/assault to occur which eventually led to the avalanche that was the MeToo movement.

Featuring Julia Garner (Ozark) as Jane, we watch her daily routine in real-time. It is agonizingly slow, with clear intent. She wakes up when it is still dark, and takes a cab from her place in Astoria all the way to central Manhattan. She opens the office, turns on all the lights, fires out a few emails, prepares the coffee, turns on all the employees computers, tidies up her bosses office, all before anyone else even shows up. 

Using this sprawling format, Green accomplishes the task of showcasing each and every moment with the same weight to ensure that nothing is glossed over. This allows a clearer before understanding of what it feels like to experience discomfort and frustration over key issues we’ve now come to know as microaggressions, gaslighting and mansplaining.

First, the boss of the company which Jane works is never really seen. He exists as a phantom menace, as not to commandeer too much of the story (we have already seen or heard enough of the horrors he committed and this movie is really just grounded in Jane’s specific experience). We meet two unnamed male employees who work side by side with Jane, but seem to be at a higher seniority than her. They are more relaxed, lounging with their feet on their desk, joking around with each other throughout the day, arriving later, leaving earlier, and giving Jane the task of dealing with the more egregious calls. It is not until halfway through the film that I even realized that they were actually just assistants, just like her. This is an excellent portrayal of division of labor. For the same role, Jane is expected to pull more weight. She is expected to do the less glamorous tasks like “tidying” and making copies. When she takes the heat for things out of her control, she reluctantly must send an apology email to the boss, where these two male employees will weasel up behind her and dictate what they think she should say.  They think they are helping, but it is patronizing and unhelpful. This is “mansplaining.”

Through all of these scenes, Jane’s suppressed aggravation is boiling over, but only seen distantly in her eyes due to Garner’s superb ability to reveal heaps of emotions with incredible subtlety. We experience the way that Jane, as an aspiring producer, knows she must put up with whatever she is given if she wants a chance to excel in her dream field, but we also sense the bleak reality that actually being promoted from such an isolated and unappreciated position feels unlikely. We understand that she does not have much of a choice, but to work like a vessel in this tightly operated cog. She does not know who she can turn to or trust. She does not know what others might know about what really goes on, and therefore, we also feel out of the loop.

The story comes to a height when Jane is asked to welcome a new hire, another female assistant (Kristine Froseth) and help transport her to the hotel where the company has put her up. Doe eyed and pretty, Froseth’s character expresses her excitement over the opportunity, and shares with Jane that she was merely a waitress in Ohio when she met the unnamed boss, who decided to hire her on, fly her out and pay for her living. This girl is young, barely an adult, and it is clear that there is something suspect about the situation. Returning to the office, fellow employees make jokes about the boss sleeping with the new girl at the aforementioned hotel, and Jane’s anxiety understandably spikes. 

Eventually turning to the HR director (Matthew Macfadyen of “Succession”), she attempts to express her concerns to no avail. The way her complaint is reworded against her, the way that Macfadyen’s character churns her words over her until they no longer make sense, they way that he threatens her future at the company with such finesse, it almost takes a moment to realize that it is happening – this is gaslighting.

“The Assistant” brilliantly peals back the layers of the system and illustrates how unwilling participants became enablers. It highlights the pillars that were put into place to protect the man at the head of a company, and not the people working for him, and how the smallest of interactions can hold substantial weight on the day-to-day. By filming this piece at a painstakingly slow pace, the gradual accumulation of each and every detail is felt to the degree it would in real-time. It is felt with true emotional exhaustion. It is felt with desolate hopelessness. By the end, you make it through the day, and you realize that it was just one day. In a series of months, that make up years of a persons life. “The Assistant” does a miraculous job of making all of the atrocities that led to this movement abundantly clear without ever relying on the horrifying, highly publicized stories at the center. It is a brilliant take on the fight against abuse of power and will undoubtedly leave viewers clutched to their seat, left with much to reflect upon. 

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