Review: The Assistant (2019/20)


Long-suffering office keystone: Symbolic Exchange 3311 Productions, Level Forward et al

There are plenty of films about the artistic side of the filmmaking process, but very few about the business side of the industry and next-to-none about the daily office work involved in getting films made. Kitty Green’s THE ASSISTANT is one of those rare films, not to mention having an important discussion 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 and arranging transport and hotels for her boss. She even wipes down the casting couch and fields calls from her boss’s wife, but 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, those at the very bottom rung of the ladder in a massive industry who are assigned all the crappiest jobs even by those who are on paper her equals, simply because they’re privileged to be male and emotionally dead to the world. Jane isn’t just at a disadvantage because of her gender but because she is a decent, accommodating person. Her employers also 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 her boss’s wife because her male colleagues refuse to do it. She has to apologise verbally and then by email to her boss multiple times for interfering in his personal life when again her colleagues leave her no choice, and they 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 an 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 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 this office, Julia Garner is the keystone of The Assistant – she’s in every scene and the camera rarely leaves her face, her character’s living experience. Her expressions convey a litany of microemotions 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 and 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. A must-watch. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

Writer and film fanatic fond of black comedies, sci-fi, animation and films about dysfunctional families.
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