The Assistant points quiet fire at misconduct in the MeToo era
There has been plenty of fallout in the entertainment industry following the #MeToo movement, with bold-faced names like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and John Lasseter all being hit with allegations of sexual misconduct. While movies about those particular men may be forthcoming, the exploits of a similar fictional person are taken on in The Assistant.
Jane (Julia Garner) is a low-level assistant in an unnamed movie production company office, tasked with doing all the menial tasks no one else wants to do. When we meet her, she’s doing seemingly normal office work, except for small details, like picking up an earring off the floor, cleaning a spot off her boss’ couch, or arranging a meeting with a nervous woman.
As the film goes along, the audience essentially eavesdrops on a day in her life as an assistant. We hear conversations in a low volume that don’t allow us to catch every word, but provide just enough context to get the gist of the tone. And that tone is that everyone in the office — and beyond — knows exactly what type of man the boss is, but none of them have the guts to stand up to him to put a stop to his behavior.
Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Kitty Green, the film is light on plot but heavy on insinuation. Over and over again, Green demonstrates the toxic culture in which Jane works, whether it’s random new women being paraded into the boss’ office or coaching by her fellow assistants on the proper way to apologize after running afoul of him.
It’s the particulars in the film that make it interesting, and also make it plausible that so many people can allow bad conduct to go unchecked. There’s nothing sexually overt shown in the film, but there’s no doubt as to what is going on. The power dynamic between the boss and his employees is crystal clear, and since each person has his or her own personal ambitions, they each have to do their own calculations on whether to push back on what they see and hear.
As the protagonist, Jane appears to struggle the most with her conscience. She dutifully makes copies of a stack of photos of women, but also uses a bag labeled for toxic waste to dispose of a particularly disgusting bit of trash from her boss’ office. She has a defeated look on her face throughout, and it takes a fair bit of effort not to yell at her to stand up for what she knows is right.
Garner makes for an ideal lead; she’s young and innocent-looking enough to fulfill the traits of the character, but strong enough an actor to say a lot with minimal words. Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins, who play her fellow assistants, complement her well, giving support and derision to her character in equal measure. Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen also has a great cameo as an infuriatingly condescending HR manager.
Powerful men abusing their positions is far from a new idea, and they’ll continue to do so unless people are willing to do the right thing, regardless of how it affects them personally. The Assistant is compelling, and a clarion call for others to hold people in authority accountable for their actions.
The Assistant is playing at Violet Crown Cinema and Regal Arbor@Great Hills.