When the #MeToo movement began inviting women to share their stories of sexual harassment and abuse, the sheer number and scope of the stories seemed unfathomable. It was hard to accept that the misconduct and coverups being recounted could have gone on for so long. Kitty Green’s feature film The Assistant tugs on that thread by focusing on a film-production assistant who begins to chafe against the toxic behavior surrounding her. Unlike Bombshell, which took a glossier look at the sexual-harassment allegations against Fox News’ Roger Ailes, The Assistant is played entirely straight. By focusing on the events of a single day and a single character’s experience of them, Green perfectly captures the horror of working in such an abusive environment. No embellishment is necessary.
Jane (Julia Garner) arrives at work before the sun has even come up. Alone in the office, she tidies up, taking care of the trash, even wiping down the couch in her boss’ office. When the work day begins, she’s subjected to an endless stream of similarly menial, demeaning tasks, struggles with the problems the two male assistants don’t want to deal with, and weathers streams of verbal abuse from her boss, which she’s always expected to follow with an apology for drawing his ire in the first place. She tolerates it all, because that’s what the job demands, and she sees keeping the job as her chance to move ahead in the film industry.
But her willingness to stay silent is tested when she’s told to escort a new assistant to a hotel. Sienna (Kristine Froseth), a young waitress from Idaho, happened to catch the boss’ eye at a conference, and he wants to meet her in private. When Jane returns to the office, the boss (who remains unnamed and unseen throughout the film) has already left for the hotel. Jane, worried by the turn of events, takes action.
It would have been easy for The Assistant to become a movie about the boss, who doesn’t have to be named to be recognizable as a proxy for Harvey Weinstein. But Weinstein and predators like him are inextricable from the power structure that enabled him, turning predatory sexual behavior into an everyday, mundane part of an industry, usually covered up and ignored. Everybody knows what’s happening. An older executive tells Jane not to worry, that the women the boss takes advantage of will get more out of it than he will. Even HR is in on it.
The almost clinical way in which events play out is a bold choice for Green, who makes her narrative feature debut with The Assistant after the documentaries Ukraine is Not a Brothel and Casting JonBenét. The latter film was a marvel. Green went to Boulder, Colorado, where child beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey lived, and interviewed the locals under the pretense of casting a movie about Ramsay’s murder. Green drew out their memories of the case and their opinions on what happened, creating a story about popular obsession with true crime rather than about the crime itself. The documentary also retained a distance from its subjects, allowing the facts to speak, rather than trying to coax a message out of the interviews. Green pulls off a similar feat with The Assistant, as Jane’s actions are neither supported nor condemned, and the film focuses on the broader structures in which abuse occurs, rather than on specific predators.
What’s so striking about The Assistant is just how subtly Green gets this all across. No one is sexually assaulted on camera, and the little tasks Jane completes add up to a larger, more troubling picture. Initially, when she finds a stray earring in the boss’ office, or fields a tearful call from his wife, she doesn’t comment. When she finally tries to put words to what’s bothering her, an HR representative (Matthew Macfadyen, never more poisonous) reassures her, “You’re not his type.”
Green doesn’t need to embellish Jane’s experiences to get across how soul-crushing they are, especially as it becomes clear there’s no good outcome for her. If she does nothing, the cycle of abuse will continue. If she speaks up, the only job on the line will be her own. And there’s no one she can turn to, because everyone around her has already accepted that this is just the way things are. Green’s approach to stories — finding larger truths rather than focusing on the most sensational aspects — vaults The Assistant into extraordinary territory, as it sheds light not only on the actions of abusers in power, but on the people around them, who can’t or won’t do anything to change the status quo.
The Assistant is available to rent on Amazon and iTunes now.
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