Kitty Green’s restrained drama details abuse of power in a Hollywood mogul’s production office
Dir/scr: Kitty Green. US. 2019. 87mins.
The film business isn’t so glamorous when you’re the low person on the totem pole: that’s the despairing lesson learned by the title character in The Assistant, an intriguingly minimalist character study that has little interest in the razzle-dazzle of Hollywood. Julia Garner gives a suitably measured performance as a young assistant working for a high-powered (and unseen) producer, and although the film addresses #MeToo, it’s also a thoughtful study of power and complicity, as well as what people will do to get ahead in a cutthroat industry.
The Assistant is inspired by potentially scandalous material but subverts expectations, asking the audience to consider the broader societal implications of the crime.
The Assistant opened in January in limited release in the US, where the subject matter’s surface similarity to the alleged crimes of Harvey Weinstein received plenty of attention. (The filmmakers have denied that the film is about the former Miramax mogul, insisting that The Assistant is based on interviews with employees in several different fields.) After a European launch in Berlin, this intentionally low-key drama now heads onto streaming platforms without the theatrical launch originally envisaged.
The film takes place over one long day with Jane (Garner), an entry-level assistant who is the first to arrive at her New York office, the sun not yet risen, and will be the last to leave late in the evening. Five weeks into the job, she handles the menial tasks — setting up meetings and flight arrangements, photocopying screenplays, opening the mail — as development executives mill around and do the important work of preparing film projects for production. The work is tedious, but Jane slowly begins to become aware that her intimidating boss might be cheating on his wife with some of the beautiful young women who come into his orbit.
Writer-director Kitty Green previously made Casting JonBenet, an unconventional, absorbing documentary in which she interviewed Colorado locals who were auditioning to be in a film about the unsolved murder of JonBenet Ramsey. Like that film, The Assistant is inspired by potentially scandalous material but subverts expectations, asking the audience to consider the broader societal implications of the crime.
In the case of The Assistant, that crime isn’t as apparent — in fact, there may be no crime at all. Green shows nothing overtly damning in the boss’s behaviour, but that’s because we never actually see him. (The film only reveals him through his voice, usually screaming on the other end of a phone line.)
That sort of denial of assumedly obligatory story elements is part of Green’s design, and it results in a film which is tightly focused on Jane’s experience to the exclusion of all else in the office. The viewer clinically observes as this assistant executes her mundane tasks, and because Green provides little sense of the character’s backstory or inner life, Jane is practically a nonentity — which, in the high-pressured ecosystem where she works, she might as well be.
This narrative strategy requires a lot from Garner — or, more accurately, very little. The Emmy-winning Ozark actress is dispassionately robotic in her actions, her character a cog in this machine. But once a naïve, pretty young woman from Boise named Sienna (Kristine Froseth) arrives, claiming that the boss has hired her, Jane shows the first flickers of recognition that Hollywood exploits gorgeous women as a matter of course. Garner’s muted portrayal is effective in a scene where Jane steps outside her comfort zone to speak out, resulting in surprising consequences that articulate how the powerful cultivate a culture of silence and permissiveness around them.
Cinematographer Michael Latham’s purposely flat lighting and Fletcher Chancey’s utilitarian production design help to ironically contrast the dreariness of office work with the supposed excitement of the film industry. As Jane goes through her day, hoping this job will open doors for her future producing career, she starts to realise how dehumanising and cruel the business can be. There might be unethical things happening in her office, but to confirm that, she’d have to risk her own livelihood. Like many involved in glamorous professions, the question is whether keeping her mouth shut is more prudent — even if it means she’s ultimately part of the problem.
Production companies: Bellmer Pictures, Forensic Films, Symbolic Exchange
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Producers: Kitty Green, Scott Macaulay, James Schamus, P. Jennifer Dana, Ross Jacobson
Production design: Fletcher Chancey
Editing: Kitty Green, Blair McClendon
Cinematography: Michael Latham
Main cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth