The Assistant


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Assistant
"Green shows the trickle-down effect of toxic masculinity, as Jane's male colleagues - scarcely higher in the pecking order than her - nevertheless chip away at her." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

If you've ever wondered what it's like to be a woman in a toxic workplace - something somewhere approaching half the population most likely already have had at least a taste of - then Kitty Green's drama will immerse you in a day in the life of one employee, Jane (Julia Garner). She works from pre-dawn till post-dusk for a movie executive, whose dubious modus operandii bears striking echoes of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

Green - who has a background in documentary, with an emphasis on people's psychological reaction to situations (most her experimental consideration of the death of a child beauty queen in Casting JonBenet) - brings her keen observation to the daily grind, speaking to dozens of former assistants as research for the film. This allows her to capture the minutiae of Jane's day, from standing at the photocopier as it churns out pages to helping the office wheels to turn smoothly - whatever that takes. Strong sound design emphasises the fizz of strip lights and clank of the office machinery, while cinematographer Michael Latham, who also has a background in documentary, emphasises the bleakness of the environment with his washed out palette.

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Jane, in clothes the colour of submission, almost blends into the wallpaper in the face of the other men in the office, acting as part-secretary, part-skivvy to them. In fact, invisibility would be preferable, as her's is a unique sort of pressure, going apparently unnoticed as she drudges about but finding herself under uncomfortable scrutiny at all the wrong moments - nobody notices as she clears the crumbs from a meeting room table but you can bet your bottom dollar someone will walk in just as she pops a leftover pastry in her mouth.

Green shows the trickle-down effect of toxic masculinity, as Jane's male colleagues - scarcely higher in the pecking order than her - nevertheless chip away at her through small complaints about a lunch order, while being all too quick to step in to tell her how to respond to their volatile boss. He is little more than an unseen presence and a voice on the phone but his toxic personality has leaked into every nook and cranny of the office.

The writer/director zeroes in on the wall of silence that has been generated and the way that discipline is maintained by demoralising employees, emotional blackmail and ensuring staff feel a constant sense of insecurity about their careers. We feel the slow drip of pressure as this single day in the life of Jane plays out, with Garner, in a performance that relies as much on body language as script delivery, showing us just how close Jane is dancing to the emotional edge.

Thoughts, of course, stray to the horror of the Harvey Weinstein rape scandal, but the sheer anonymity of this office and its inhabitants and the way in which everyone has somehow managed to mentally reconcile themselves with accommodating and even enabling the boss's bad acts emphasises that this could - and likely is - happening in many more places and not just one industry.

Reviewed on: 01 May 2020
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A day in the life of Jane, an assistant to a high-powered film executive.
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