Director: Kitty Green
Stars: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfayden, Makenzie Leigh
Part of my lockdown pattern so far has involved rewatching AMC’s prestige TV show Mad Men. Set in the ’60s, the series revels in the regressive attitudes to women prevalent at the time in Manhattan office spaces, asking us to be shocked at the behaviour displayed and thankful for how far we’ve come. The show smiles at us and asks, “Honestly, can you imagine?”
Times have changed. In many respects things have improved. But there’s also enough evidence to suggest that they also haven’t, and that systematic sexism and the abuse of power remain big problems in office environments and that the manner in which these toxicities manifest have perhaps only changed, or grown more insidious.
Documentary filmmaker Kitty Green’s first narrative feature spends a day in the life of a low-level female assistant at an esteemed New York film production office. We are invited to follow the movements of Jane (Julia Garner), taxiing into the city before sunrise on a Monday morning to get the place ready for the working day. Green’s history in nonfiction should key viewers in to the dedication here for itemising the humdrum. Jane spends her time xeroxing, emailing, handling post. Also cleaning up after meetings, washing up after her co-workers, even playing temporary child-minder for her unseen boss; an executive with a short temper. Nobody talks to her. All of her co-workers are male. They read her emails over her shoulder. They dictate them. There’s no privacy.
It’s a quiet, patient process, but this is all part of the rigor of The Assistant. Green establishes a baseline of ‘normal’ and, in the process, has us begin questioning what ‘normal’ ought to look like. Gradually, a sense of unease grows over the atmosphere in the place. A persistent sense of walking on eggshells, along with loaded comments like, “Never sit on the couch”. Jane finds an earring on the floor in her boss’ office and returns it to a woman she’s never met before.
When a situation arises that concerns Jane, she takes it to HR to file a complaint (something which requires a considerable amount of courage and integrity) but she is met with open hostility. It is here – around an hour into the picture – that Green’s hard work starts really showing its dividends. We are on Jane’s side, though all she has are inklings and insinuations of misconduct. Her story is expertly mocked and torn to shreds. Garner’s performance is meticulously calibrated. She’s one of the great unsung presences in America right now; having shone in Rebecca Thomas’ Electrick Children back in 2012 while currently the best thing by miles about Netflix’s flagship drama Ozark. This unexpected confrontation and rebuttal allows Jane the opportunity to crack, and we come to feel the veneer she’s been holding all day and longer.
It’s a stifling watch, and that’s the point. The Assistant not only documents bad behaviour, but also how it becomes normalised through peer pressure, through threats, through stony, awkward silences. It takes place in a post-Weinstein world, and Jane is right to question the actions of her boss, but Green’s film dares to confront us with the notion that one big scandal might not have changed anything. Harvey might have gone to jail but that hasn’t ended sexual harassment or worse. It is a film that stares at us and says, “Don’t you dare think this is over or has gone away.”
Green isn’t explicit. She’s no sensationalist. The Assistant is a washed out, muted affair and all the more chilling for it. The ordinariness is horrible. The quietude uncomfortable. Green frequently uses overhead or over-shoulder shots, giving the sense that Jane is being watched or diminished. Her boss is never seen and the executives he meets with are framed as headless chatterboxes. It speaks of the disparity between Jane’s position and theirs; reinforces a space between them and the power dynamic. In the middle of the film Jane prints out a pile of photo resumes that stack neatly on top of one another. A little pile of women. Objects. Routine.
Some may bemoan the lack of combustive drama or satisfactory resolution, but that’s entirely the point here. The Assistant is a film in which inaction is action. Where such choices hold ramifications all of their own, where drama exists in the decision. In thought. And a film in which solutions are no solutions at all.
“I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” Jane is told by snide HR manager Wilcocks (Matthew Macfayden), “You’re not his type.”
A quietly furious document.