She is the invisible woman. The assistant to a high-flying New York movie mogul, Jane (Julia Garner) floats around the office, silently collating papers, cleaning up mysterious stains from her boss’s casting couch—“Never sit on the couch,” her co-workers joke—wordlessly doing the jobs nobody else will do. An aspiring filmmaker with hopes of one day producing her own movies she sees the job, low level as it is, as a stepping stone.
When her boss flies in a young, pretty waitress (Kristine Froseth) he met at the Sundance Film Festival to work in his office Jane suspects it is a #MeToo situation in the making. Reporting her feelings to HR in hopes of protecting the new naive hire she is instead reminded of how power works. “I can see you have what it takes to produce,” says the appropriately named HR guy Wilcock (“Succession’s” Matthew Macfadyen). “Why are you trying to throw it all away?”
That harrowing scene lies at the heart of “The Assistant,” now on VOD. A timely study of the systemic mistreatment of vulnerable and defenceless women, Jane’s story is an account of the many slights and indignities suffered by subordinates to power.
“The Assistant” is a quiet movie. Much of the dialogue comes from Jane’s conversations with unseen limo drivers or her boss. We see her limited interaction with co-workers, but mostly we see the day-to-day drudgery that fills her hours. She arrives before dawn, stays well into the night and is treated like she should feel lucky to be there. Director Kitty Green keeps the focus tight, allowing the viewer to feel the soul-crushing drudgery of Jane’s job. She is invisible, a presence simply to absorb her boss’s bad temper and get lunch for the senor staffers.
Green never strays from Jane. We don’t meet the head honcho or learn about anyone’s backstory. It’s not that kind of movie. Instead it is a document of the degradations and power dynamic that are an accepted part of the job. The film’s chattiest scene, between Jane and HR’s Wilcock, is quiet but shattering in its impact. His smugness is the very attitude that enabled the very abuse that Harvey Weinstein is facing trial for today. The casual nature of Wilcock dismissiveness is chilling, punctuated by one last parting shot. On her way out of their meeting he ‘reassuringly’ adds, “You don’t have anything to worry about. You’re not his type.”
“The Assistant” is anchored by a subtle yet devastating performance from Garner. The hard-edged bluster she brings to her character on “Ozark” is missing, replaced by anxiety as she realizes the extent of the exploitation happening around her. It’s quiet, restrained and heartbreaking to watch how she is beaten down.
Based on hundreds of interviews with real-life assistants, this is more than just a movie, it is a timely document of abuse of power and complicity.