2/07/2020

Movie Review: The Assistant (2019)




She watches their faces flash by on each newly printed headshot. One attractive girl — the apple of someone's eye somewhere — quickly replaces the next until they start to blur together, kind of like the women she sees either waiting to meet her boss, washing away their tears in the bathroom, or retrieving an earring that she'd rescued from his office floor . . . before she cleaned his stained couch.

A busy worker bee that most would prefer not to see or hear (kind of like her boss who's never seen), after only five weeks of work as the lowest rung on the office ladder, recent Northwestern graduate turned production office assistant Jane (Julia Garner) is in a position to see it all.

The first to arrive and one of the last to leave the New York City office where she eats all of her meals and spends her weekends, Jane has discovered, as we all do, that at work, there's the tasks you complete because they're written down in your job description and the ones that the culture of the office dictates that you do.


A Jill of all trades that might as well be a Jane of all trades (since the interchangeable anonymity of our protagonist recalls girls toiling away around the globe in offices like hers we might only come to know as Jane Doe), in The Assistant, her duties run the gamut.

There's typing, faxing, light cleaning, and phones of course, but in an office like Jane's, with so much going on both under her nose and behind closed doors, her tasks quickly slide from the realm of business into more uncomfortably personal terrain. More than just putting away prescriptions and arranging travel, in the course of one stressful work day, which is captured in full detail in Australian documentary filmmaker Kitty Green's painfully real, darkly revealing docudrama, Jane is thrust into situations that go above and beyond an assistant's call of duty.

Pushed — by two male coworkers with more seniority — into taking a phone call from the frazzled wife of her boss when she wants to know where her husband is, who he's with, or why he's put a block on her credit cards, Jane is also forced to look after the children when she drops in announced. From morning to night, she becomes the unwilling buffer between her boss and all of the women in his life.


There's the ones who stop by for their appointment whom Jane might see next collecting jewelry they'd left behind by the stained couch (that the men in her office joke they would never sit on) or perhaps crying into a paper towel, but there are others whose presence is far more unexpected. While the former — the walking headshots  — are starting to weigh more heavily on her conscience, it's the arrival of the newest beauty, a barely legal girl fresh from Boise flown in to be a glorified assistant and put up at a fancy hotel, that sends off alarm bells in Jane.

Urged to sign employee forms the young woman doesn't begin to understand before she's given a desk in what appears to be a merely decorative post, the inconsistencies of Jane's day — including filling out blank checks to most likely be used as hush money — send the conscientious assistant straight to HR.

Gaslit, threatened, and badgered to look to the other way by keeping her head down in order to move up professionally, in a chilling scene played with faux friendly, matter-of-fact menace by Matthew McFadyen, writer-director-producer and co-editor Kitty Green gets everything right in her fictional feature debut.


The result of meticulous research, including interviews with women working in not just film but every industry, the feel of the film is so universal that as soon as Garner began flipping on garish, buzzing fluorescent lights, I was mentally transported back to a similarly soul-sucking office job I held when I was Jane's age. And while, with the New York headquarters and by now, a very identifiable modus operandi, one can't help but conjure up images of Harvey Weinstein throughout Jane's day, the film would ring just as true if it was set in Boise at a trucking office or upholstery store twenty years ago, long before anyone had even heard of #MeToo.

Nonchalantly showing us everything through Jane's eyes, from the moment she gets up at o'dark thirty to catch a ride into the city from Astoria to eat cereal over the sink standing up, the film sets the tone of the monotony, untapped potential, and dread that comes with the job. Like one of those dreams you have where you swear you spent all night at work, even before Jane settles in at her desk, we feel Green and Garner's sincere intensity as we watch the gifted young actress who first caught our attention on The Americans immediately vanish into the everywoman role.

Easily the strongest film I've seen so far in 2020 and one that I'm sure we'll be still talking about by the year's end, in her first time at bat as a fiction filmmaker, Kitty Green is wise enough to know that to drive her point home, she doesn't need her characters to make a big speech.


Treating Jane like a blurred headshot, we watch as she's forced by office protocol to send multiple apology emails to her unnamed, unseen boss whenever he phones her to chew her head off about some perceived slight. Observing all of the drama from their desks where they're more freely able to goof off, the men in her area stand behind her as she takes to the keyboard each time, coaching her on what to write.

"I appreciate the opportunity to work for this company and will not let you down again," she types and we feel the sardonic pain of each word. A low level employee who just wants to go about her day and do her job, in the masterful The Assistant, Jane is everyone on the bottom rung. Not quite ready to ask herself how much longer she can keep her head down and pretend not to see what's going on, Jane knows that soon the time to do just that will come.

Despite their attempts at deflective humor, Jane recognizes that her coworkers all know just how rigged the system is in the end. Even with a title change or salary bump in their future, on this otherwise random day, it sinks in that in her boss's exploitative playground, they're all guilty by association, and there's no real way to rise above it or move up. In this world where tyrants are protected, Kitty Green's Assistant reminds us that we're all just headshots.


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