Wednesday 20 January 2021

Movie Review: The Assistant (2019)

A day-in-the-life drama, The Assistant explores the troubled office environment of a lowly nobody, as she notices everything but is noticed by no one. 

In New York, Jane (Julia Garner) works as one of many assistants to the powerful boss at a movie production office. Her day starts before dawn, and her duties cover everything from making coffee, answering the phone, picking up litter, booking flights, hotels and limousines, greeting visitors, buying lunch for other assistants, and trying to calm down the boss's irritable wife when she calls.

Jane tolerates the thankless days because she hopes to one day make it as a producer. But when another young female assistant is hired from out-of-town and whisked away to a hotel room for a private liaison with the boss, she feels obligated to take her concerns to a human resources officer. Her day only becomes more complicated.

A sparse, almost experimental 87 minutes from writer and director Kitty Green, The Assistant is loosely inspired by Weinstein-type workplace improprieties, but more broadly observes office operations from the lowest rung of the ladder. This particular workplace is related to movie production, but it could represent any other high-stress, long-hours, traditional male-commanded white collar environment. With no music, barely any structured dialogue and no linear narrative, the film builds curious interest as Jane navigates the ups and downs of her day.

With this assistant having no workplace friends and deemed too unimportant for anyone to talk to, most of the conversations are overheard snippets between other people. Green adopts a passive bystander stance, following Jane around the office, with open doors in the background sometimes revealing offices hosting important meetings where Jane is never welcome. She is confined to the administrative periphery where success is measured by the absence of screw-ups.

But on this day first she says the wrong thing to the boss's wife, then she dares poke her nose into what looks like a power-imbalanced sexual liaison. On both occasions she has to confront the possibility of her employment coming to an early end. And yet to answer why the Janes of the corporate world put up with all the garbage, a one-line email offers a glimmer of a suggestion that there could be light at the end of her tunnel.

Julia Garner is at the center of every scene and carries the film on her shoulders. She conveys resigned sadness mixed with stern determination to whack through the thicket of hard days. Matthew Macfadyen appears in one scene as the HR manager, and the rest of the cast members are essentially glorified extras.

The Assistant lives a familiar reality for many, a balancing act of getting the job done while measuring minute-by-minute whether the emotional toll is worth it.

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