To say that The Assistant tackles the gargantuan monstrosity that is Harvey Weinstein’s Hollywood is to gloss over the microscopic scale of the film. The effects of the #MeToo movement haven’t yet trickled down to the small New York production company portrayed here. If a stand has been taken by the celebrities that run the world of The Assistant, it certainly doesn't pertain to Jane (Julia Garner), the titular low-level task-runner who reports directly to a powerful executive who remains unnamed. This is not to suggest that documentarian Kitty Green’s first overtly fictional film takes place in a film industry that has achieved gender parity, however: Jane is well aware that there’s work to be done in this department.
“We need more female producers,” her human-resources representative (Matthew Macfadyen) exclaims at one point, an empty platitude that is immediately undercut by his menacingly condescending tone. The Assistant is not trying to convey an environment where people are desperately fighting for reform — it’s showing the detrimental ramifications of continuing to ignore serious structural faults in the power dynamics of the workforce.
Green is still a relatively new voice in the world of documentary filmmaking, with her first two features — Ukraine Is Not a Brothel (2013) and Casting JonBenet (2017) — continuing to ignite conversations about the relationship between fact and fabrication within nonfiction. For her third feature, she’s fully embraced fiction to construct a narrative that’s anything but a fantasy.
Jane’s day-to-day is not particularly fascinating, despite taking place in the East Coast office of a burgeoning production studio. She dreams of producing, but she knows that people who come from families outside the studio system have to put in the work if they want to reach the same heights as those who were born into the industry. This means starting at the bottom as an assistant. Sure, there are plenty of other people in her spot — and even more who’d do anything to take her place, even at this entry-level position — but her work is different. Her two associates, both men, make important phone calls and get to work directly with the talent and executives. She gets to do dishes, clean the conference room, order the meals, and feed excuses to her boss’ wife while he’s out doing goodness knows what.
Mundanity is the point. A single day feels like a week as Jane completes the same tasks she’s expected to perform day in and day out. The major conflict is almost entirely internal, with any real person-to-person struggles occurring over the phone or via email. There is no big fight, no disaster, no obvious indication that her workplace environment has suddenly taken a turn into dangerous territory. Such plot devices would result in an exaggerated and idealistic story in which a lowly employee takes down the head of her company by standing up for what's right. Reality is not so just. Instead of documenting an actual assistant in a real production company, Green has constructed a fictitious play-by-play of rudimentary tasks plagued by systemic discrimination. It’s another eight hours of the routine office microaggressions that ultimately lead Jane to her breaking point. As such, it’s considerably more impactful, especially to the significant number of people who have worked in an office and have been in Jane’s shoes before.
The signs are there from the very beginning. We see Jane restocking her boss’ performance-enhancing injectables in a stark white cabinet, a shockingly personal task that has seeped into the professional world without consequence. We watch as her male colleagues loom over her shoulder as she types her emails, a visual representation of Jane’s suppressed voice. We grow increasingly uncomfortable as yet another superior scolds her for doing something even the slightest bit wrong, an overreaction to a botched chore that she should never have been tasked with in the first place. Even the way that cinematographer Michael Latham frames Garner indicates where she stands in the office hierarchy: positioned in the bottom center of the frame, a vast swath of negative space hovering over her head. Her remoteness from the top of the chain is unmistakable, both in the way she is visually positioned and the way she is treated by every domineering force in this debilitating power structure.
If Jane can’t even type up a simple message without one (or both) of her colleagues dictating her words, how could she ever hope to take down the perverse and corrupt executive she reports to? It sounds like a classic underdog scenario. However, Green may have delved into blatantly fictional filmmaking here, but she’s still a documentarian at heart. To abandon the truth in favor of a feel-good Hollywood ending would be to misrepresent the current state of the industry and dismiss the efforts of those who continue to fight for even a single iota of positive change. The writer-director stays true to her subject and asserts that nothing substantial has changed in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s arrest in May 2018.
The Assistant isn’t a film about the one low-level employee who dared to rock the boat and subsequently triggered a tsunami of transformation that put an end to the world of criminal higher-ups. It's about how the people at the top — no matter their gender — perpetuate a cycle of abuse so stupendously vicious that it acts as a vacuum rendering the office an environment devoid of parity, professionalism, or even basic safety. This is the reality that awaits too many college graduates seeking entry-level positions, regardless of the field or discipline. The Assistant uses fictionalization to shine a beacon on insidious corporate corporeality. It’s not about Harvey’s Hollywood, a time when evil went unremarked on and dastardly executives moved in the shadows. It’s definitively post-Harvey. As Jane’s experience illustrates, the film industry is well aware of the change that needs to happen. It’s simply unwilling to actually implement those changes — unsurprising, given that the hierarchy is populated with the same people who enabled the unconscionable behavior in the first place.