The Assistant (2020)
Written & Directed by Kitty Green
The #MeToo movement of the last three years pulled a lot of masks off a situation that almost everyone knew was happening, but there had been a collective silence due to the fear of losing jobs and wealth. One of the biggest revelations was the uncovering of film producer Harvey Weinstein’s habitual abuse and outright rape of women for decades. Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison for sexual assault and rape in New York City with additional charges pending in Los Angeles. As much as it we want to celebrate his convictions, history tells us wealthy men who abuse their power don’t often serve those full sentences and have the wealth to make prison a very comfortable place while they are there. Justice for the victims of the powerful is a rare animal indeed.
The Assistant follows a day in the life of Jane (Julia Garner), a junior assistant at a film production office in New York City. She goes through the routine she’s come to know from the last five weeks, making copies, prepping coffee, just getting the office in order for the day. As she gets the auditioning room ready Jane retrieves an actresses earring and makes sure to contact the woman to let her know she found it. It becomes clear both in how male employees speak to Jane and small hints throughout her day that sexual harassment and assault are part of the workplace. It’s never presented in a melodramatic fashion just plainly, part of the background. Jane is never assaulted but is a smart woman who can put together the pieces of what she sees. The question that the audience will ask and the film will inevitably answer is, “Will Jane do anything about it?”
I loved the mundane qualities of this film. I have never enjoyed brash, “girl power” melodramas because as empowering as they may feel, inevitably those pictures are total fantasy and create the wrong image in people’s minds about how power works in our extremely corporate capitalist society. That very power structure is what protected Harvey Weinstein for decades and only when people collectively banded together to speak out was anything able to happen to him. You can see the same thing when it comes to Bill Cosby. Collective action is always a more powerful force that relying on single individuals to so something.
Jane is a character with wants, her main focus is working her way through the company ladder to become a producer in a few years. To achieve this she has put her head down and is doing grunt work while tolerating the gross, immature men she has to work around. There are two other assistants working in the same officer for the unnamed head producer and she is subtly ignored by them. However, when she has to send an e-mail apology for accidentally upsetting the boss’s wife over the phone, one of her co-workers looms over Jane’s shoulder dictating the corporate-speak she needs to say to be blessed with forgiveness. The assumption is she would not be able to apologize correctly and needs guidance.
Eventually, Jane goes to Human Resources when she meets an extremely young woman who the boss met while at Sundance. He’s hired this barely legal woman to work as a fourth assistant and expects Jane to show her the ropes. Jane isn’t stupid and knows this woman is here for her boss to have sex with until he becomes bored with her. Jane goes to HR where she sits down with Wilcock (Matthew MacFayden) who lays things out in both a supportive and threatening way. The dialogue here and the performances are pitch-perfect because they convey how people trying to do the right thing are kneecapped, gaslit, and made to become complicit in the exploitation. Wilcock is concerned about Jane’s ambitions if she goes through with filing a formal complaint. Then he relays her complaint back to her in a way that makes her come across as jealous of another younger woman. The entire is exchanged is capped out with painful clarity as Jane leaves, having rescinded her complaint, and Wilcock lazily reminding her, “Don’t worry, you’re not his type.”
I think The Assistant is the perfect film about the way the system works and how it holds back accountability by dangling promotions and job security over people. Because this is only a single day we don’t get closure about what Jane is going to do as the evidence of her boss’s abuses becomes further clarified until he sends her home while he stays late to take advantage of a young actress in his office overnight. Jane seems resigned, angry that it’s happening but starting to build layers of numbness to make it through tomorrow and the next day. Jane isn’t a bad person for not taking action, she is every single one of us made to feel alone inside a massive capitalist structure. She’s a replaceable cog and therefore she must cling to the tiny corner she has been given. You can imagine that internally she’s convincing herself that one day when she had climbed the ladder and has power she’ll do something, but she and the audience know that is simply a beautiful lie.