Hollywood's response to the #MeToo era has been fragmented, to say the least. Whether it's virtue signalling at awards ceremonies (before letting the very abusers they've denounced continue to have careers) or sensationalising high profile-cases, such as in Fox News dramedy disaster 'Bombshell', there have been very few instances where Hollywood has actually understood the gravity of the issue, or how to accurately portray it in all its quiet, unspoken horror. 'The Assistant', written and directed by Australian Kitty Green, is one of the very first films that cuts the perceived glamour out of the issue and shows just how ingrained harassment is in workplace culture.
Taking place over the course of one day, the film follows Jane (Julia Garner, TV's 'Ozark'), a recent employee of a New York-based entertainment mogul, through the mundanities of her position. Eyes are rarely on Jane while she organises her boss' trips, cleans his meeting rooms, and receives packages, but her unease is palpable. Is it due to the fact that Jane, an aspiring screenwriter, is scared that something as small as an administration mistake could screw up this chance to further her career? Or is it due to the stains and jewellery on her boss' couch, his crying wife demanding to know why her funds have been cut off, and the very young waitress (Kristine Froseth, TV's 'Looking for Alaska') he's recently snapped up as a new assistant? It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that Jane's boss is power-drunk and dangerous, but Green never explicitly tells her audience that. Instead, we are left to assume the worst of a man we never even see on screen, instead only hearing his growls through walls or over the phone as he berates Jane, which only adds to his threatening aura. It makes for a bone-chilling experience.
It's impossible to imagine 'The Assistant' working nearly as well as it does without Julia Garner. Green has struck gold with her lead star, whose non-verbal acting carries the entire film. Jane knows very well that one wrong word could end her career, and it's up to her eyes to scream for help from her workmates, from HR, from other women in her workplace. 'The Assistant' may not seem like the kind of film that would benefit from a big theatre experience, but a large screen to read emails on Jane's screen and a great sound system to pick up on whispers and phone calls throughout the office only add to the experience. Green has stated that she spoke to hundreds of women about their personal experiences in workplaces such as the one in 'The Assistant' to assist in writing the screenplay, making the film more authentic and highlighting just how normalised the institutionalised demoralisation of women has become.
The miracle of 'The Assistant' is how it manages to do so much with so little.
The miracle of 'The Assistant' is how it manages to do so much with so little. To the wrong audience, its gulfs of dialogue-less moments may seem boring; however, when given the attention it deserves, the anger and fear bubbling under the surface are impossible to ignore. The micro-aggressions and gaslighting Jane faces throughout the day sting no less than the moments of kindness from her workmates and her boss, as if they are meant to make up for yelling at Jane over something as inconsequential as getting a sandwich order wrong. Green heightens the hostility of Jane's work environment by saturating the film in cool tones and shooting in rooms with harsh fluorescent lighting, adding to Jane's discomfort as she slouches forward in an attempt to go as unseen as possible.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a film that moves with such unassuming intensity as 'The Assistant', a film that demands full attention from its audience to tell a frustratingly normalised story of frustrating normalised harassment. It's a quiet film brimming with power, one that is not to be missed.