The world of the Hollywood assistant has never been a glamorized one, and instead the role has typically reached the screen as peripheral figures at best. There are exceptions, from the romantically comical (America’s Sweethearts, 2001) to the mean-spirited and blackly comic (Swimming with Sharks, 1994), but a recent rise in awareness to this behind the scenes environment has given new urgency to their own stories. Abuse, low pay, long hours, and more untenable realities have recently led Hollywood assistants to fight loudly for a union to protect their rights, but there’s one area where they already exist on a level playing field with co-workers, higher-ups, and other Hollywood types — as witnesses and enablers to evil.
Jane (Julia Garner) is only five weeks into her job as an assistant at a New York-based film production office, and she’s already feeling the pressure. As the newest member of a three-person team, she’s first one in and last one out each day, and the work never stops. Most of it is mundane, some of it is relevant, but all of it is meant to move her closer to her dream job producing movies. One element she didn’t expect, though, is having to help coordinate her bosses encounters with young women both in his office — where she’s left to clean couch stains and retrieve lost jewelry — and at nearby hotels. As the day goes on she grows more leery and unsure, but what can one person do to make a difference?
Writer/director Kitty Green‘s (Casting JonBenet, 2017) narrative debut, The Assistant, is a tense indictment of both predator and enablers. The CEO’s face is never glimpsed, instead remaining out of frame or out of focus, but his actions are clear through implication and common sense. He’s Harvey Weinstein without actually being Harvey Weinstein. It’s an unavoidable reference point, but even if you don’t have his name in your mind the mental picture is complete as Green offers enough “evidence” to confirm the insinuation. This is a bad man, and the journey through Jane’s day is a grueling one by association as Green immerses viewer in the experience.
At under ninety minutes the film moves quickly while still allowing each moment and blow to land with weighty effect. Jane’s verbally abused by the boss, the boss’ wife, and others who out-rank her, and it’s enough to leave viewers wondering where their own limit rests. For many, riding out the mistreatment is a necessary step en route to an end career goal — one where too many turn around and mistreat those coming up behind them — and the film’s decision to focus its entirety on a single day affords a more immediate glimpse into this reality. We see Jane arrive before dawn and leave after dusk, and it’s an undeniably miserable existence, but it’s the choices made across those hours that the film is highlighting. Importantly, the lack of a traditional score leaves every silence deafening.
You can’t help but feel for Jane, thanks as much to the script as to Garner’s powerfully vulnerable performance, and that’s nearly as applicable to her fellow assistants (Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins) who have grown numb to the environment and its requirements. It’s that broader picture, though, where the film finds its footing. All of these people, from Jane to secretaries, executives, managers, and more, are aware to some degree as to what is transpiring behind closed doors. “She’ll get more out of it then he ever will,” says a female producer who suggests Jane simply look the other way. Another complains about having to bring a young starlet to the man’s office — not because she disapproves, but because it’s a waste of her time. Others chime in too with the common theme being one of simple self-preservation.
This Weinstein-like head honcho is the undeniable monster, but the film’s revelation — not really news to anyone paying attention, but still something that needs pointing out — is that the man’s crimes require complicity from those around him. Weinstein’s victims recount being led to rooms and offices for meetings by assistants and reps only to be abandoned at the mercy of the beast. His actions were intentionally malicious, but theirs? They were simply covering their own asses and following orders. History has shown us on a far larger scale that we should expect better meaning that while he’s the clear monster they’re still culpable in their own ways. It’s a bold conclusion for a film that’s otherwise structured as a revealing tale of real-world oppression with a relatably sympathetic lead, but intentional or not it’s also unavoidable.
The Assistant is disturbing for the right reasons, and while it’s possible to walk away from it feeling empathy for Jane and others stuck in unforgiving jobs for unforgivable bosses the film’s bigger theme hangs heavy overhead. Where do you draw the line when it comes to prioritizing yourself over others — and how sure are you that you’d never cross it?