Harnessing the ghosts of #MeToo, Julia Garner gives a strong performance as a young assistant trying to keep afloat in a job that demands every fiber of her being.
The behavior of many of the leading figures that #MeToo exposed existed as a poorly kept secret throughout the industry. Show business can be a scummy place. The “boys club” present in The Assistant feels more like a daycare center with grown men incapable of doing anything for themselves except yelling and harassing others.
As the titular assistant, Jane (Julia Garner) has big ambitions. She wants to be a film producer someday, once she works her way up from the bottom of the ladder. The lowest rung is a lonely place with long hours and no room for even a semblance of a social life. Work is Jane’s entire life, a fairly depressing existence.
Director Kitty Green firmly grounds the narrative in the mundane. The office where the vast majority of the film takes place is a bland landscape, an ugly building full of miserable people. Jane is one of three assistants working directly for the unseen, unnamed boss, but she experiences little camaraderie from her two more senior male coworkers. The closest thing they display to kindness comes in the form of helping her draft one of many apologies letters to appease the ego of a thin-skinned man-child.
The decision to never reveal the name or face of the boss comes to define the whole narrative. Referred to solely as “he” or “the boss,” there’s a certain power in the unknown. The audience gets the chance to substitute the faceless monster for a real-life one of their own choosing. Whether anyone sitting in their seats would want to is a different story, one that heightens the dramatic tension at times and stifles the narrative at others.
The boss rules with an iron fist, yelling or sending angry emails. We see everyone else living under his reign of terror, perhaps more than necessary. The Assistant succeeds at immersing the narrative in its subject matter, Jane’s humanity slowly eroding in real time.
Garner largely carries the film on her back, reflective of her isolated standing. She’s skilled at subtle displays of emotion, the kind Jane isn’t supposed to have. For a character best off keeping a low profile, Garner sustains the slow burn.
The film has a habit of stepping on itself. Many of Green’s creative choices work, albeit with obvious drawbacks that are hard to ignore. It’s rare to sit through a well-made film while still second-guessing practically every narrative decision.
The choice to frame the narrative within the confines of a single day helps communicate the toxic nature of Jane’s abusive workload. The film has a claustrophobic yet compelling relationship with its primary setting. Trouble is, the events of the narrative are so closely packed together that they lose a bit of their impact.
A scene where Jane visits Wilcock (Matthew Macfayden), the company’s HR manager, is deliberately frustrating. Jane is there to complain about a recent hire with no administrative experience, a pretty girl flown to New York for obviously nefarious purposes. Jane is totally justified in raising an issue, but the film does everything it can to cast doubt on that fact.
For starters, Jane has only been at the company for two months, a length of time that’s a drop in the bucket compared to how long many Hollywood scandals went on for. She brings up the issue on the girl’s very first day. Wilcock does everything he can to make sure Jane knows the ramifications of the charges for her career, regardless of the legitimacy of the allegations.
The #MeToo era has shined a spotlight on the problematic nature of attacking the accuser. For too long, workplace culture bent over backward to malign credibility instead of instituting real change. It’s okay that Jane is an imperfect messenger because these situations are messy. Doing the right thing is hard.
The Assistant takes place in the recent past, before the #MeToo movement. An iPhone and a dated web browser point to the late 2000s, giving the film a period feel while still serving as a reminder for how much things have changed in such a short period of time.
A little gray is far from a bad thing, but The Assistant often struggles to find its voice. The pacing is inconsistent, hardly enough story to justify a 90-minute runtime. The premise may call for a slow drip, but the scope is too narrow for its own good. Jane’s days may blend together, but that’s not a great look for Green’s scenes.
It’s fairly refreshing to see a film about sexism and workplace harassment in the post-#MeToo era function without any notion of optimism or justice. These dynamics used to be a part of everyday life for far too many. Like its protagonist, The Assistant isn’t a perfect messenger. It’s a well-made film with a clever narrative, albeit one that’s hard to embrace.