Though it grapples with a distinctly American scandal—that of the #MeToo movement in the movie industry—Kitty Green’s The Assistant comes off as surprisingly European in its observational, detail-oriented approach. As it follows a day in the life of the assistant of the title, played by Julia Garner, the devil is quite literally in the details: the wording of an email, the nudge of a box of tissues, the dishes left behind after a meeting she’s not invited to. A film quite light on dialogue, we follow Jane (as she’s identified in the credits, though never in the film) through moments that seem unremarkable, doing the entry level work of an office assistant at an unnamed film production studio. She makes copies, tidies up, and helps make travel arrangements for a male studio head we never actually see on screen.
Mundane as it all is (the tasks, certainly not the film), it’s nevertheless immediately familiar to women who’ve ever been in a similar situation, entering the workforce young and ambitious, eager to contribute and learn but often sidelined by the systems, preconceived notions and, let’s be honest, sexism that pervades most aspects of society. Intertwined in her everyday work are the unspoken expectations of the role she occupies—doing the dishes her co-workers leave behind, dealing with the boss’s wife when she calls in, and even babysitting his kids briefly when their nanny brings them to the office. Green, who wrote and directed the film, seamlessly navigates the meaningful and the mundane throughout Jane’s day, declining to give any indicators like a swell in the score (which there really isn’t one, unless you count the whirs, hums and clicks of an office as music) to the more troubling ones. Not that it’s needed; we all know when something untoward is happening, and we know when Jane knows it, too.
With the camera focused on her nearly the entire time, Garner excels in a focused performance that delivers an emotional punch sometimes with little more than a shift in her gaze or a change in her countenance. Extreme close-ups leave her nowhere to go as we watch her react to her boss cursing her out on the other end of the phone; her devastation, frustration and confusion is unambiguous, if understated.
The scene with the most dialogue is also its hardest to watch. Having just deposited a new hire—a young woman the boss brought on after meeting her at a bar in Idaho—at a downtown hotel and then discovering that the boss has departed shortly thereafter for the same hotel, Jane summons the courage to visit an HR exec (Matthew McFadyen) and voice her concerns. The interpersonal dynamics at play are nuanced and complicated; as well-intentioned as she may be, Jane isn’t as prepared as she should be, and Wilcock damn near relishes in his dismantling of her feedback, his loyalty to the company above all. Garner’s journey from someone doing what she believes to be the right thing—the thing you’re always told to do, to speak up—to someone completely deflated, second-guessing their own intuitions and motives, is nothing short of devastating.
Which is exactly what Green is going for, approaching the subject the way she does. By centering the narrative on this sort of third-party player—she’s not exactly the victim, but neither does she have any power at all, in any room she’s in—the terrible reality of toxic, predatory, abusive leadership (and the systems, staffs and industries that enable them) becomes undeniable. There’s no risk of misplacing our sympathies if we’ve never met the perpetrator, no chance of misunderstanding dicey situations if we never actually see them. Most palpable of all are the internal conflicts Jane navigates at nearly every turn. She’s doing work she wants to do, but at what cost? She’s making connections she needs, but to what end? She’s intent on being dependable, responsible and agreeable, but to what degree? These are negotiations known all too well to women who seek equal footing in any industry, women who hope for a seat at the table, a platform for their input, or an outlet for their expertise.
There’s no such thing as a universal experience, so it wouldn’t be fair to say that Jane’s is one everyone will understand; you’ll bring to the film your own background and worldview through which to perceive her circumstances. And whatever that perspective is, The Assistant is a worthy, enlightening and often heartbreaking experience. But as one who has worked in a role very similar to hers, in companies very much like the one she works for, and for men who quite resemble the unnamed executive she reports to, suffice it to say that Green captures this particular experience hauntingly well.