It’s not an exaggeration to say that Hollywood has found only middling success at best when it comes to reckoning with the MeToo movement, perhaps in part because audiences have to weigh the obvious irony. As we all know by now, Harvey Weinstein was one of the first high-profile cases of an alleged sexual assaulter rising in power and abuse within his own studio, and the first definitive narrative film tackling the subject comes in the form of The Assistant from director Kitty Green, which premiered at Telluride in 2019 and is now playing at Sundance.
The Assistant follows just a single day in the life of a young woman named Jane (Julia Garner) reporting to a faceless studio executive who is clearly having affairs with the seemingly never-ending rotation of women (many of them actors and models) coming in for production meetings. Jane spends most of her time “tidying up” the office, coming in early and staying late to clean up after her bosses and answer the phone calls no one else wants to deal with. It just so happens that some of those messes involve the boss’s obvious improprieties tolerated by all.
The tension in The Assistant is consistently rooted in what we don’t see, but rather what we hear in the form of gossip around the office, as well as clues of misconduct Jane picks up on over the course of a particularly stressful day. And this is what makes The Assistant so much more effective in its central messaging than other films of this subject. The dimly-lit, even boring office here is portrayed authentically, with all the tedium and micro-aggressions one can find all too familiar in a hostile work environment, where brief moments of false humanity can help people breeze past a sense of moral accountability.
Rather than lionize its central character, Green is far more interested in making sense out of her fundamental flaws by systemically walking the audience through what her various responsibilities (both officially and otherwise) entail and how her coworkers enable their manipulative boss. We see the grooming of a young woman to be complicit, with scenes even allowing her fellow assistants to coach the way she writes an apology email. None of it is authentic. None of it is honest. To succeed in Hollywood, the implication is that you have to adopt a set of rules that conflict with basic human decency.
One of the film’s missed opportunities here might be in how it barely touches upon the hypocrisy of Hollywood films themselves espousing morals its central workers are clearly using only as a means to an entertaining end. On the other hand, this is cleverly told less directly when we see Jane passing out scripts for movies that other production executives basically ignore, getting the same message across without being too heavy-handed.
It’s hard to predict whether or not The Assistant will be recognized in the years ahead for its skillful depiction of this specific moment in time. But as of right now, it certainly should be. Julia Garner could have easily provided a senseless, vacant performance in an effort to show how the bottling of emotions is a real thing in these situations, but even her suppression of emotions is emotional, and several long takes allow this quiet wandering to slowly come out and reveal itself through various quirks, habits, and character blocking. It’s thrilling to see Green employing such mastery of how setting, lighting, and even something as simple as a stare can tell 15 minutes of story in just a few seconds.
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