This film was screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
“The Assistant,” a timely story about abuse of power in the workplace, left me shaken and angry. This quietly devastating film about a young assistant (Julia Garner) to a prominent entertainment executive is inspired by the Me Too movement (and clearly, the bad actions of Harvey Weinstein). The story accurately portrays the weighty emotional toll that stems from knowing something isn’t quite right, but you are powerless to do anything about it.
Jane (Garner) is just starting out in her career. She puts in long hours at the New York office of a powerful film exec, and she takes continual emotional and verbal abuse from her boss (whom we never see). There’s nothing glamorous or rewarding about her job, but those around her give constant reminders that she is the lucky one simply because she is employed there. Jane is faced with hostile, degrading comments from almost everyone she comes in contact with, but she quietly goes about her business and tries her best to ignore it.
Writer / director Kitty Green chooses to center her methodical, orderly narrative around a female assistant, which makes the film all the more powerful. She uses point of view shots that make it feel as if you’re right there in the office, stepping directly into the character’s shoes. The story takes place over one day in a drab office as Jane begins to see a pattern of events that don’t add up. She’s someone who doesn’t quite know enough to have a clear, undeniable picture of what’s going on, yet she still knows something definitely isn’t quite right. It’s unsettling and effective, and it something to which young women (and some young men) everywhere will sadly relate.
When Jane tries to do the right thing, she’s stonewalled by a Hollywood culture where abuse is tolerated, joked about, and covered up — in other words, it’s accepted. She watches as her colleagues joke about these escapades while laughing off her concerns. An unhelpful HR director (the terrific Matthew Macfadyen) dismisses her complaints as “bullshit” and a product of “jealousy,” which is infuriating to watch because it feels so steeped in truth.
Even more disturbing is that while eyes have been opened thanks to the “Me Too” movement, this gross misconduct is still going on in offices all over the world. Newsflash to those working in the entertainment industry (and elsewhere): if you don’t speak up, or if you laugh about or shrug off bad behavior, you’re part of the problem. “The Assistant” is a sobering reminder that just because “that’s the way it is” doesn’t make it right.