When I saw The Assistant, back in January, just before its tiny opening in the US, I suspected that it might prompt somewhat divisive reactions from audiences. I wanted to think that this quietly brutal film might be an eye-opener for those who don’t understand how cruelty, abuse, and discrimination get perpetuated in institutional settings, particularly as experienced by women and dished out by men. But I also had to concede that what this movie lays out in such shockingly simple terms, depicted with such savage mundanity, might not be accepted as realistic by those who would prefer to deny its harsh truths.
I was eager to see what sort of larger cultural conversation would develop around the film. Would a divide come across generations, as we’ve seen before, when (some) older women don’t understand why younger women are making such a big deal out of the ordinary, everyday crap that older women put up with and kept their mouths shut about? Would a divide come across genders, as we’ve seen before, with (some) men wondering why women don’t just suck it up and endure what men do as simply part of the game everyone has to play? Or would most people be ready to acknowledge that such intolerable toxicity has gone unchallenged for too long?
And then the coronavirus pandemic cut short The Assistant’s theatrical run in the US: it never played on more than 25 screens, and grossed only just over $1 million. (A wider release had been planned.) Now, as it arrives on VOD and DVD in the US — and goes straight to streaming in the UK — will that conversation happen now? In the absence of new multiplex blockbusters to dominate the movie buzz, could a brilliant, devastating, absolutely essential little film like this one actually stand a better chance of being seen, its rage being heard?
I hope so. Because here is the figurative dark underbelly of an industry dominated by the likes of Harvey Weinstein, straight white men who dictate whose stories get told and promoted as the default, and whose get diminished, dismissed, and ignored. Even when these men are not actively predatory, their narrow perspective on the world becomes the perceived “normal.” The Assistant is also the literal flip side of the male-dominated dream factory, made by women, about a woman who wants into the industry, and who gets a nasty peek at how the sexist sausage is made and what she’ll have to do if she still intends to pursue the career she thought she wanted.
Weinstein is the clear inspiration for writer-director Kitty Green, a documentarian making an incredible feature debut, as she gives us a day in the working life of Jane (Julia Garner: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Martha Marcy May Marlene), new in the office of a prestigious boutique film production company in lower Manhattan. Right off the bat, there is nothing in the least bit glamorous about Jane’s day, which starts with her leaving home in Queens before the break of dawn in order to be first in the office. She’s new in the job, we later learn, having started only a few months before, and we suspect that she might not realize the awful significance of some of her first chores of this day: picking up a piece of woman’s jewelry from the floor in the boss’s office, and — ewww — what kind of stain is she cleaning off the couch?
Jane’s workday is filled with what we gather are daily tasks: making the morning’s first pot of coffee; fielding angry personal calls from the boss’s wife; unjamming the copier; writing checks for the boss to sign that have no names on them; getting berated by the slightly older and extremely arrogant male assistants (Jon Orsini [Girl Most Likely] and Noah Robbins [Miss Sloane]) because the deli got their lunch orders wrong; changing the boss’s appointment with a young actress from afternoon to evening, but still in the hotel, yes (*gross*). Green presents all these little jobs in the same flat uneventful tone, and Garner’s Jane goes about them with the same level of middling enthusiasm but diligent attention. The viewer might wonder why we should care about Jane’s dull drudgery… except we know more about what’s going on, what misdeeds and crimes Jane is unwittingly facilitating. And she doesn’t. Yet.
The apparent monotony of The Assistant is already gripping from the start, a blistering subdued horror story of everyday life for women. We don’t even see her boss — just a glimpse of his back, maybe, as he shuts his office door for a meeting — and barely hear him: briefly over the phone but mostly muffled behind that closed door, indistinct yet insidious. The malice and hostility of the environment is clear, though, not least in how the young male assistants are obviously taking asshole lessons from the boss, and are on their way to becoming new versions of him, if they can accumulate enough power to get away with it.
But then something happens that causes Jane concern, and she begins to get a clue about what is going on around her. It’s chilling to watch Jane start to realize that her working life is going to be a series of ongoing calculations: how much shit do you eat, how much denigration do you swallow, how much bad stuff do you ignore, how much do you justify as a survival mechanism… and how much do you help perpetuate? Garner’s performance is perceptive and wise, Jane’s naiveté plausible, never risible, and her awakening to what is happening around her heartbreaking.
This particular story is set in the movie industry, but it could be happening in many other workplaces in many other industries. So many women will instantly recognize the truth of how abuse and discrimination get swept away and hidden, why no one stops it even though everyone knows about it, and what happens when women speak up about it. So many women will hear whispers of the frequent responses we get when we talk about this: “It’s nothing.” “You’re overreacting.” “You’ve got to pay your dues.” “That’s just the way things are.” For too long, our society has attempted to gaslight women into denying the dehumanization of what we go through, and often so well that we gaslight ourselves, too. Seeing it all here, boldly and baldly, is a powerful refutation of any argument that it’s not real or that it doesn’t matter. It is and it does.
The Assistant was the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for January 31st. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.
For more information and resources on workplace abuse experienced by women, please visit The New York Women’s Foundation, which has partnered with The Assistant to explore the ways in which equity can be actively incorporated into every aspect of workplace culture.