“The Assistant” – “Empowerment through empathy.” – Tarana Burke
“Tumble out of bed, and I stumble to the kitchen. Pour myself a cup of ambition and yawn and stretch and try to come to life. Jump in the shower, and the blood starts pumping. Out on the street, the traffic starts jumping with folks like me on the job from 9 to 5.” – “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton
Jane (Julia Garner) works for a movie production company in New York City. She’s an entry-level assistant to the top executive, and even though she has an office job, her workdays are anything but 9 to 5.
While the sun still blissfully enjoys restful REM sleep, Jane – wrapped in a grayish, greenish winter coat with her chin buried in a thick yellow scarf – takes a Lyft from her Astoria apartment to begin a typical 15-hour day at the office. She makes coffee, takes calls, unjams the copier, picks up donut boxes from empty conference rooms, and runs the occasional errand. After working at this unnamed company for five weeks, Jane knows her day will finally end when her boss unceremoniously declares, “I don’t need you. You can go.”
He, however, is not the only one who dismisses Jane. For instance, as she washes dishes in the breakroom, others will drop off a coffee mug or plate on the counter with no acknowledgment, thanks or salutations, and on frequent occasions, a male assistant competes for her attention by throwing wads of paper in her direction. No, her future – as the most junior person on staff – doesn’t seem terribly bright at the moment, but this is writer/director Kitty Green’s intention, as she shines a light on a treacherous, all-too-common practice that feeds on the steep inequities of authority.
“The Assistant” is a film about sexual misconduct, but Green takes an alternative approach to this dicey subject.
“I started looking at the #MeToo coverage and (was) a little disappointed that people were focusing on the predators and these sensational stories,” Green said in a January 2020 Build interview.
She adds, “Rather than looking from the top-down…let’s study (a) day in the life of a person who has the least power in an organization.”
We experience Green’s film through Jane’s eyes. She catches snippets of big decisions and huge projects, but these debates hide behind closed doors or stroll by without her inclusion. In addition to money-making ventures, she also discovers partial clues – and stumbles into obvious evidence – of recent office dalliances. Are these forced, unwanted encounters? The indications say so, but Jane does not walk into an explosive moment as a first-hand witness. Instead, she finds forensic evidence and computes the awful equations of her boss’s emotional and ethical bankruptcies.
Green employs a frugal hand throughout her 85-minute film in nearly every aspect. The bland walls and minimalist office future are deliberately commonplace. Just think of a Dilbert comic strip with zero jokes, and Scott Adams saturating every frame in a gloomy, chalky gray. Other than Jane’s coworkers laughing – on one occasion – about some sophomoric happenstance, no one appears particularly jovial to work at this place of business.
It’s a prison of sorts, but the inmates are detained by invisible chains.
Still, the underlings are free to chat and play nice, however, conversations rarely occur, as long stretches of on-screen silence are only accompanied by the low hum of industrial lighting and recycled air traveling through the ducts. This is an environment where the sudden rush of a blender crushing ice and mixing protein powder becomes a featured event. (Consider yourself warned.)
Silence is the unwritten rule of this company’s mission statement, but suppression and concealment are noted in the fine print. You see, in Green’s detailed, day-in-the-life example of the sordid, widespread history that sprung the #MeToo movement, she successfully and clearly documents empathy without empowerment.
⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image credits: Bleecker Street; Trailer credits: Movie Coverage