The Assistant was written and directed by Kitty Green, and gives us an intimately close-up look through a day in the life of Jane (Julia Garner, Ozark), a recently-employed Hollywood production assistant working for an uber-powerful, Harvey Weinstein-esque producer, and all the complications and unsought tension that her kind of job entails. Both unfortunately and fortunately for her, she’s quite good at it. As she goes throughout her day, she maneuvers around his schedule, manages calls from his inquisitive wife, gets lunch for the office, and occasionally finds one or two minutes of time for herself to eat a bowl of cereal or make a cup of coffee. The nature of her work, however, also means that she covers up a lot of things for her boss that may otherwise land him in hot water, such as returning misplaced earrings or recovering two discarded syringes and putting them in a biohazard bag to be taken out with the day’s trash. Needless to say, it’s not exactly the environment in which she imagined herself when she first applied for the position. As the day goes on, and new women (mostly aspiring actresses) are brought into his office, Jane is expected to wait on them, at one point encountering a new assistant who the producer hired at random out of Boise, Idaho, even though she had almost no experience as an assistant. As this young face is brought in, Jane has to figure out what she can do about these dubious circumstance (if anything), and whether or not bringing this matter to attention would be worth the potential cost in regards to the risks of what it might do to both her job and her standing within it. This film also stars Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Kristine Froseth, Makenzie Leigh, and Matthew Macfayden.
Okay, to be fair, I indulged a little bit on the summary paragraph above. The truth is, not much happens in this movie on a plot level. Most of it really is just about Julia Garner’s character going about her day-to-day as an assistant, while all the more heavy plot elements happen around her. That’s not to say that the film is in any way boring (mileage may vary on that front), but rather that it is much less of a thriller than one might expect from having watched the trailer; it really is much more of an “unspoken” drama, that being a movie wherein most of the tension/interesting plot developments occur offscreen, and we are meant to infer their meaning through how the main character reacts to them or to what they’re meant to represent. On that note, the film works very well, and often to a sort of uncomfortable success.
I, personally, am not intimately familiar with the world of Hollywood productions or the many, many cogs that make that sort of machine turn, so I can’t speak to the accuracy or lack thereof in terms of this film realistically depicting what the life of production assistants would be like, but what I can say with all certainty is that this film’s delicate handling of what can only be described as an unofficially Weinstein-adjacent story can take Garner’s character, and thus the film’s audience, to what we understand to be some deeply uncomfortable positions, and the way the script and direction by Kitty Green play out reflect that uncomfortability in a very delicate manner that says much more within its quiet moments than in the showier scenes the film has (as great as those scenes can be, and as rare as they are). One of the key things this movie does so well is speak very loudly with very few words. In fact, most of what the movie is about concerns what is left unspoken. We know Jane’s boss is an uber-powerful producer but we’re never explicitly shown who he is or how he wields that power; instead, we’re meant to imply those answers through the context of how Jane reacts to certain situations and little bits of dialogue, whether that is over the phone or via an overheard conversation. The final few shots of the film by themselves communicate a lot without saying much, as Garner’s character has a conversation with her father right across from her office building, eating a muffin mere hours from having to return to work again. The way these shots play out could be their own mini-movie, but placing them just at the end of this forces the audience to confront the notion that what’s happening offscreen in this movie isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. This is one assistant in one part of Los Angeles, looking up at suspicious activity in the corner of a building; how many different studios could this be happening in, and how many of these instances are happening in far less obvious places?
That’s not to say that the showier scenes don’t also have a tremendous amount of power, though. One of the film’s best scenes is a dialogue exchange between Julia Garner’s character and Matthew Macfayden (who I believe we’re meant to assume works for the studio’s H.R. department), wherein Garner is attempting to communicate to him that something about this new assistant hire seems suspicious, especially given the circumstances in which she came to Los Angeles. It really is in this scene that the audience becomes more explicitly privy to film’s central figure, the unspoken mystery around what he’s doing, and who he is meant to represent in terms of what kind of story the movie is telling. Nobody wants to make a move on this guy, and not even H.R. seems particularly interested in actually filing any complaints about his suspicious behavior with the women he brings into his office or puts up in a nearby hotel. The amount of leg work people in this movie do in order to not lose their jobs via investigating these circumstances seems ridiculous, and yet people like Garner’s character really can’t afford to speak out without taking that risk.
Now, none of what this movie is attempting to communicate works without Julia Garner’s performance in the lead role, and while I won’t say that I was blown away, I certainly can’t imagine that she won’t more leading roles after seeing her work in this. Her performance reflects that very delicacy with which the main subject of this movie is maneuvered, and we are with Garner’s character the entire movie, thus privy to every little nuance she is able to get across to the camera. Through a mix of close-ups and medium shots from DP Michael Latham (who shoots the film way better than was even necessary for a movie like this), we understand how isolated Jane really is as the only woman working in this part of the producer’s office (until a certain point at least). Garner’s performance as leaves very little to the imagination while simultaneously opening a wide range of possibilities as to what could be happening behind closed doors or what could happen to her, who works right in front of those doors, if she makes the wrong move. It’s a performance that runs a fairly large emotional gambit through her eyes without seeming too loud for the type of movie this is.
Even if the performances are good, however, and the story is engaging on a micro-level, this movie certainly won’t be for everybody, and the somewhat built-in inaccessibility of movies like this does bring it down one or two pegs. The main “flaw” with this film, if it’s fair to call it that, would be its almost hyper-specificity in regards to its subject matter. For someone like me, it’s not as much of an issue to sit through 88 minutes of insider-type dialogue that can make some plot developments or implicative moments in the film inaccessible to the average person, but for that average person, it could be seen as more of a googling chore (even I struggled to understand what certain things meant or what was going on at a few points). Apart from that, much of the film might seem repetitive to the average viewer, and deliberate or not, that repetition can occasionally feel stagnant, like there’s meant to be a point, but we already knew what the point was the last time we were shown one of these scenes. Someone without knowledge of the film industry, or the inside of it rather, simply may not connect with this kind of material, and that can hurt the movie in those respects. Still, it’s a relatively minor issue in comparison to how well the movie works on other fronts.
I’ll admit, I’m not sure what I was expecting going into The Assistant, but I was nonetheless pleasantly surprised by how much I kept thinking about it after it was over. It’s the sort of story that you might not realize is grabbing you so intently during the viewing, but hits you much harder once the credits begin to roll. The film moves a little slow, and most of the more interesting stuff happens off-screen, but this movie does have a salient point to make about how monsters are only kept in power when everyone is afraid to take them down. Julia Garner’s performance is one of the best leading ones so far this year, the movie is absolutely one of the better small-scale films to be released in 2020, and if Kitty Green didn’t already have a future in telling intimately uncomfortable but vital stories in Hollywood, she certainly will after this.
I’m giving “The Assistant” an 8.8/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.