Described as one of the first #MeToo films, The Assistant is an uncomfortably chilling examination of day-to-day workplace abuse with an outstanding central performance from Julia Garner.
Imagine getting your dream job but soon realising that it isn’t what you imagined it would be. Although this is essentially what we witness through production company assistant Jane (Julia Garner) in Kitty Green’s narrative debut The Assistant, the film is about much more than just that. Green’s work is also an uncomfortable, but powerful, examination of day-to-day abuse within the workplace – where the smallest of comments, the snide remarks, and the faintest of facial expressions are enough to remind the young woman of her disadvantaged place within the patriarchal system.
The Assistant unfolds over a 24-hour period as we follow Jane’s normal working routine. She is the first person in the building, turning the lights on, making the coffee, printing out endless spreadsheets, and cleaning out rooms for important meetings. Michael Latham’s cinematography reflects the mundanity of everyday office life in still shots and endless long takes. The colour scheme is predominantly grey, as though all life inside the building has been drained due to the toxicity that infests Jane’s working environment. There are the little gestures, like businessmen impatiently sighing at her, and the male colleagues that mansplain how to write an apologetic email. Jane’s boss is no better, insulting her over the phone because she failed to come up with an alibi to get him off the hook with his wife. We repeatedly see behaviour that would usually warrant an earnest apology, but that never comes.
From the first minute to the last, The Assistant is an uncomfortable, gruelling watch. Seeing Jane repeat the same tasks on an hourly basis, with the film’s pace consistently subdued, sustains a feeling of powerless on Jane’s part. She has little to no say on what happens around her, just like us as we reluctantly allow little forms of abuse to be ignored. With most of the drama set indoors, there is a claustrophobic atmosphere. We long to escape from Jane’s surroundings, but we can’t. Like every other job, we have to finish our work duties before heading out the door.
This may be considered an understated film. There is barely any dialogue and Garner’s performance is very subtle, but this is what provides the drama its power. Just from Jane’s tired, weary face at the outset, we know that the harassment she endures later is a constant. When she finally takes a stand against the system and meets with a HR worker (Matthew Macfadyen), his behaviour – whilst Jane is on the verge of tears – will make you want to vomit. There goes a cliché that a ‘picture paints a thousand words’, but with Garner’s impressive performance she captures a thousand more experiences just like Jane’s.
Many news outlets are describing this as a #MeToo film due to the clear comparisons that can be drawn to Harvey Weinstein’s crimes. Putting The Assistant in a bracket would be reductive, because this is about more than just the actions of one horrible individual. It’s about hundreds, thousands more men like him, and the structures that oppress women through humiliation and mistreatment. While The Assistant is stripped-back in terms of Green’s approach, this doesn’t take away from what is a compelling and deeply unsettling drama. An important film for the times we live in.
The Assistant, directed by Kitty Green, is distributed in the UK by Vertigo Releasing, certificate 15. It is available to rent via iTunes, Google Play and other VOD platforms.