The studio boss to whom Jane (Julia Garner) serves in The Assistant is never seen, never named, and only ever heard as a grumble over a patchy phone line. But the horror he represents is unmistakable. The boss is imperious and abusive in more ways to count, and his toxicity finds a way of trickling down to every other layer of the company, even to the point where Jane, after being forced into taking the blame for a non-event, is nitpicked by her male colleagues as she taps out an apology email, adding, in one spot: “I’m grateful for the continued opportunity.”
The Assistant, which follows one long — and fairly ordinary — day in Jane’s job, has been billed as a direct analogy for the hell Harvey Weinstein put his people through for more than three decades, until he was brought down as the lecherous creep who now sits in a New York courtroom on multiple rape charges. Writer-director Kitty Green’s debut feature is that, but to catalog it as simply the “Weinstein movie” does a disservice to both the film and the victims of abusive workplaces everywhere.
Jane’s day begins before dawn with a long, lonely commute from Queens to Lower Manhattan. As the most junior employee, it falls to her to photocopy the day’s script submissions, print out the daily schedule, and scrub the couch in the boss’s office clean of whatever he deposited the previous night. When the sun comes up and the office is populated, she gets to clean the dirty dishes people leave in the office sink, bicker with travel agents about the boss’s upcoming trip to Los Angeles, and set the conference room for the next meeting.
The less-icky parts of Jane’s job is the stuff people in their first gigs out of college tell themselves is the monotonous work required to pay one’s dues and steadily climb the career ladder. Jane is a young woman from a nice upbringing who wants to be a producer in her own right some day, but first, there will be some drudgery.
Garner plays it all with the quiet resolve of someone resigned to toiling through it, but also gradually realizing her coworkers don’t see her as an equal. Without Garner ever raising her voice or contorting her face, Jane absorbs the company’s brutal culture, knowing something is deeply wrong but not quite sure if there’s anything she can do about it. It’s a purposefully restrained performance from Garner, but one that’s immensely powerful in its minimalism.
It’s only when another young woman from Idaho (Kristine Froseth) shows up, claiming the studio boss has also hired her as an assistant, that Jane is moved to action. Tasked with whisking the woman off to a luxury hotel — very clearly for an assignation with the boss — Jane takes her concerns to the studio’s HR director (Matthew Macfadyen). The ensuing conversation is devastating.
Green, whose made her name with the 2017 documentary Casting JonBenet, has created something sharp and unfussy, but also deliberately cold. Jane’s office is shot in flat, dim colors. The long silences, absence of any soundtrack, and steam rising from manhole covers, makes her world feel that much more hostile — compounded by the knowledge she’ll go back in the next day and the day after that. But it’s The Assistant’s instant familiarity that’s most infuriating of all.