Jane is the first person in the office and the last one out. She also wipes the stains off her boss’s couch. She’s an entry level assistant for an unseen and influential figure in the film world with a conveyer belt of young women visiting his office, a nod to Harvey Weinstein. The Assistant is a day in Jane’s life.
The film’s life began before the #MeToo movement, but changed shape following the many accusations towards Weinstein and others in the industry. Director Kitty Green has a history in documentary filmmaking and researched The Assistant in much the same way. Through conversations with women in film and other professions, she pieced together the overt, subtle, and insidious forms of oppression and microaggressions that they experience daily, subjecting Julia Garner’s Jane to a disheartening shift at a job she’s worked towards for years.
The film has a cumulative effect, even for its short runtime. First, it’s Jane switching on all the lights, then it’s having to eat her breakfast at work, followed by asking “how was your weekend?” with nothing in return…and so on. Sometimes Garner portrays Jane as quietly obedient, but as her day progresses, the camera moves closer to her face as it teeters on the brink of snapping, either with endless tears or unbridled rage. Every little detail is perfectly captured as a stressor on Jane’s day, from her unaware and entitled colleagues, to how everyone assumes she’ll do the printing and scanning, her desk located beside the noisy machines. For such a quiet film, it’s an overwhelming crescendo of stress and frustration.
Garner has never been better. Her face is seemingly unchanging for much of the movie, but there are tiny shifts in the speed of her eye movements, the tightness of her jaw, how high she holds her head. She delivers each line as if Jane has a finite amount of words to use, either because it’s efficient or because there’s no scope for her to actually take up space with her personhood. A shot of her in a lift beside a much larger man in a black leather coat, contrasting her soft pink top, heightens the senses, because she’s small, because she’s alone with him, because who is looking out for her? This is all down to how Garner’s posture makes us aware of Jane’s visibility and invisibility, acknowledged for doing something wrong, yet receiving no thank you’s for doing what others have lumped her with by omitting themselves from the responsibility.
The Assistant is razor sharp. In portraying a workplace as a setting of demoralising behaviours, Green’s choices go beyond surface-level villainy. Jane is made to deal with her boss’s emotional partner, passed over to her by her male colleague, because there’s an unspoken assumption that as a woman that is more her job than his. The two women talking in the communal kitchen area who leave their dishes without saying anything to Jane don’t do so maliciously, but they contribute to everything else, a culture in which she is yelled at, ignored, unthanked, unappreciated, made to do janitorial work, where she feels the need to sacrifice her weekends and evenings because who else is going to do it? This is 2020’s first truly great film, one that should leave everyone thinking about the treatment of those around them and how we contribute to their misery, actively or by doing nothing at all. It’s a film crying out for everyone to pay attention.