Written and Directed by Kitty Green | 87 min | On Demand and Crave Plus
Years ago I worked as a production assistant in the Toronto film industry. I always thought there was a film or series to be done about the work and life of a production team that would go a way to deglam what it’s like to work in that industry. Not that it was all bad, far from it. There are good people, hardworking people, skilled, talented people. There are also long hours, an unforgiving hierarchy defined by money, ego, and entitlement.
For women, of course, it can be much harder.
The Assistant is a lean, unblinking look at a day in the life of a woman in an entry level position in the New York office of a successful American film production company. She works for someone who we never see, who isn’t even named, but someone who wields absolute power over his staff. Weinstein would be the first name you’d think of from this world, but the film is smart to anonymize the character. This could be any of a number of production companies in the biz. It could be all of them.
Julia Garner (recently of Ozark and The Americans) is remarkable as the lead, Jane, who is “the first in and the last out” of the office. We spend as much time with the mundane details of her day as we do the degrading ones — from fixing the jams in the photocopier to disinfecting her boss’ couch to keeping up to speed with his prescriptions and returning an earring to a mystery woman.
The focus is narrow, but I’d argue that makes it more disturbing. We’re seeing the shield, the close-knit group of yes-men — and, yes, they’re mostly men — who manage a powerful figure’s needs, both business and personal, and how his staff is complicit in the way his abuse continues with impunity.
The one moment where Jane wants to say something, to do something to protect one another young woman, she takes her concerns to her human resources department represented by Whitlock, who’s played by Matthew Macfadyen. The scene is far and away the most potent — a free-floating short film existing in the feature’s centre, it almost turns the rest of the picture into its life support system. The filmmakers could’ve released this scene on its own as it conveys the core emotion of the entire picture — a culture of humiliation and bullying. Whether that’s to the rest of the film’s credit or not is debatable, but it’s a great scene.
What The Assistant could do better is offer more characters who actually behave like human beings. It’s understandable that those in the inner circle would seem like snide robots, sublimating their fear and frustration for the sake of their careers, but characters on the margins also act like they’re medicated. A little more personality there might’ve made the darkness more powerful in contrast.
Nonetheless, we’re now starting to see the #TimesUp films, like last year’s Bombshell, and The Assistant is a formidable addition to that cohort.