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The Assistant

(2020) *** 1/2 R
87 min. Bleecker Street. Director: Kitty Green. Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew MacFadyen, Noah Robbins, Jon Orsini, Kristine Froseth, Alexander Chaplin.

/content/films/5197/1.jpgIn her 2008 play Assistance, former Harvey Weinstein assistant Leslye Headland includes the wisecrack “Well, now that we’ve been people briefly, we can go back to being assistants.” Like Headland’s comedy, Kitty Green’s drama The Assistant features a put-upon female protagonist working in the outer office of a movie mogul we never see or hear but whose outsized presence overshadows everything and threatens to dehumanize those he encounters. In the wake of Weinstein’s conviction on counts of a first-degree criminal sexual act and third-degree rape, The Assistant has the benefit of relevance to the current news cycle, but it’s about something much larger even than the famous convicted felon who threw his weight around Hollywood.

To craft her first fiction film as writer-director, Green applied her skills as a documentarian, interviewing females at the bottom of the corporate ladder in a variety of industries. And while The Assistant’s plot ultimately takes shape around sexual misconduct, the sexual gratification of an alpha-male boss, Green determinedly examines broader and wider parameters of sexism in the workplace. Green’s understatement makes The Assistant an unsettlingly realistic and empathetic look at a young woman navigating a fraught American workplace still largely in the grip of the patriarchy. Given that approach, the film rests on the shoulders of talented up-and-comer Julia Garner (who blazes with a different flavor of intensity on Netflix’s Ozark). As junior assistant Jane, Garner subtly embodies the inner war within so many in positions of powerlessness. How much is she willing to put up with? And can she afford not to?

Cleverly, Green fits these themes into one eventful and yet all-too-typical day at the office, from Jane’s wee-hours commute into midtown Manhattan to the quiet devastation of her dark-of-night departure. Slowly, deliberately, Green depicts the accumulation of indignities for a woman in a boy’s-club environment. The two male assistants (Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins) who ostensibly share responsibility with Jane breezily banter with each other and take on the work that’ll make them most likely to succeed, delegating the worst tasks overtly or by default to Jane. Although Jane has the least seniority—until the arrival of a conspicuously unqualified young woman (Kristine Froseth)—the office culture implies that men are unlikely to do the tasks expected of Jane: making coffee, cleaning up after the boss and her peers alike, ordering everyone’s lunch, even handling the boss’ used syringes (an allusion to Weinstein’s use of erectile-dysfunction medication).

In this context, a paper cut is the least of the stings Jane feels. Although she does share some organizational duties of import (“manning” the phones and making travel arrangements), her nominally senior colleagues also pawn off to her career-risky tasks in a manner that clearly makes them gendered: onboarding the new female hire and taking the call of her boss’ wife with the understanding that Jane should lie about her bosses’ whereabouts if she knows what’s good for her. But it’s that new hire that takes Jane beyond the pale and forces her into a moral dilemma. Faced with circumstantial evidence of, shall we say, human-resources violations, Jane takes a meeting with a corporate stooge (Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen, that skilled performer of toadying white-male privilege) whose minimizing approaches gaslighting. It’s a climax that eschews sky-high fireworks in favor of ground-shifting aftershocks, deeply dispiriting for the audience to experience by Jane’s side.

The Assistant, then, functions as a thoughtful post-mortem on the institutional enabling of a monster like Weinstein, but also an encapsulation of decades of once-countenanced belittling of women in male-dominated business environments (and political ones). As the #MeToo movement gains ground in the workplace, a film like Green’s plays its part not by preaching, but by gathering intel, speaking truth to power, and winning hearts and minds.

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