‘The Assistant’: The #MeToo Film That Has Hollywood Worried
Kitty Green’s new film “The Assistant,” in theaters Jan. 31, examines the abuse—both physical and psychological—in Hollywood through the eyes of an office assistant.
I wouldn’t call writer-director Kitty Green’s The Assistant, hitting theaters Jan. 31, a strictly #MeToo era film. Of course, the plot obviously has much to do with the Harvey Weinstein reckoning (with a trial that is currently underway), as well as the larger conversation around gendered abuses of power in public and professional spheres. But more specifically, this is a film about the U.S. film industry’s failure to support workers’ rights—especially those of workers who are part of historically marginalized communities. The right to not be abused—sexually, emotionally, or otherwise—at work should always be at the center of these conversations. But for years and years, the film industry, from the production assistants (in offices and on set) to leading talent, has refused to take the conditions of its most junior employees seriously; the rub is that many of the employees who have managed to climb the ranks are in some way complicit in aiding the abuse.
The Assistant follows, with close-ups and a patient yet eerily still camera, recent Northwestern graduate and aspiring film producer Jane (Julia Garner), who has been working as an assistant to a high-powered film producer for five weeks. As the most junior assistant of three—the other two assistants are men—she must be the first to arrive, in the cold darkness of a New York winter, and the last to leave. She also works weekends. Jane lives in an apartment in a small old building in Astoria, and we first see her, well before sunrise, leaving her place to get into a car that will take her to the Manhattan office where she serves as every beleaguered associate producer’s passive punching bag.
Her colleagues barely acknowledge her as she prints their documents, orders their lunch, tidies up their spaces, replaces their supplies, responds to their emails, and puts out their administrative and personal fires with a supremely controlled phone manner. The two male assistants she works with have a good cop/bad cop routine that amounts to the substance of the cliché—that is, none at all; they push volatile, unwanted situations her way, and only help her when she needs to write compulsory apology emails to their shared overlord. What Jane does for that overlord, her boss—a man we never see but hear from and of—is often extreme: In one scene, we see her take his insulin syringes out of his personal trash can with her bare hands and place them into one of the plastic red biohazard bags she keeps in her desk. Garner masters the portrayal of Jane with physical subtlety as well as an undercurrent of emotion suppressed so fiercely it has its own subplot.
Garner’s performance works so well both because of its expert control and its small yet resounding flights of fear and fury, which hit me in the gut with some personal resonance. One summer during college, I worked in a film production office as a full-time intern alongside overworked and underpaid young assistants; I’ve also worked as a full-time assistant in the media industry. While neither industry tends to reasonably account for the intellectual or emotional labor of entry-level workers, my film industry experience was far more demanding.
The internship was the only position I’ve ever held where I directly experienced verbal abuse, and in which there was an overwhelming mandate to place the well-being of the producer-executives above your own. Still, I was only there for a summer, I told myself, and even felt lucky to be in entrusted with filling in for the assistants when they took time off. The Assistant masters the power dynamics that are central to the various abuses withstood in these kinds of you-should-feel-lucky-to-be-here workplaces: You are special yet disposable—in one moment, you’re a genius on the path to professional stardom, and in the next, you’re an ungrateful embarrassment. To cope (or make sense of your investments of time and energy), you hold onto instances of praise as proof that the mistreatment is merely a test, a necessary obstacle on the way to greatness.
But I was not as ambitious as my peers and, after that summer, sought out experience in other areas, which made it difficult for me to secure a job after college (one of the assistants—and not one of the producers—I worked with during the internship went out of her way to help me with the post-grad job search, so much so that, years later, I still think about her kindness). Looking back, not securing a film producer’s assistant job was perhaps a sign, not least because the $20,000-a-year Manhattan-based jobs I was interviewing for in 2015 are at the center of what we talk about when we talk about the corruption and toxicity of the film industry. It’s a system where wrongs are not only committed by predatory or dismissive men in power, but also nearly everyone else with some leverage to actually do something about it, including women who strategize their way through the glass ceiling, pretending that once arrived they can’t see back through to the other side.
With both the economy of words in her script and tightness of her direction, Kitty Green refuses to turn away from the isolation and banality of the grunt work in the film industry, which makes for a transfixing and harrowing film that briefly crosses into comedic absurdity. Key to the story is that Jane’s boss is not just verbally abusive but also sexually predatory, though not toward her. When Jane tries to ring the alarm after (spoiler) a young and unqualified assistant is hired out of nowhere and put up in a fancy hotel, she is brutally and skillfully rebuffed by the head of human resources (Matthew Macfadyen), who implicitly threatens her job. Later, after receiving an ugly verbal thrashing from her boss over the phone about going to HR, he replies to her apology email saying (I’m paraphrasing), “I’m sorry. You’re good. I push you because I know you will be great.”
Several supporting actors from the TV series Succession fill out the adjacent roles of repressed and complicit coworkers in The Assistant, including Macfadyen, again playing a deceptively affable corporate shill; Dagmara Dominczyk, again glued to her phone while shielded by an expensive bob haircut; and Juliana Canfield, again an assistant, but this time of the sort tasked with picking up laundry, packing luggage, and babysitting at severely competent levels (of course the most physically demanding domestic and interpersonal work is thrust upon a woman of color).
The emotional and psychological abuse Jane suffers goes hand in hand with her boss’s sexual predation, with the former paving the road for the latter. And positioned along that road are several men and women who know about it and know better, yet would prefer to overlook abuse in the service of their professional ambitions instead of fighting to have the dignity of their fellow workers respected. So far, the film industry—from the Hollywood studios to the New York production companies—has done all it can to avoid reckoning with the intrinsic nature of its problems, focusing instead on corporate and carceral feminisms that attend to individual instances of reported sexual abuse rather than taking steps to upend an entire system dependent on myriad exploitations. The Assistant begs the question: What will we do, the Janes among us?