Shot in 18 days, “The Assistant” chronicles a day in the life of Jane (like everyone else, she is not referred to by name in the film, but unlike everyone else, she at least has one), who caters to each need of her nasty boss (never seen), the wealthy head of an unnamed New York City-based film production company/talent agency. The company is not quite the “total institution” described by sociologist Erving Goffman in Asylums (1961), but it comes close. The office is an oppressive and alienated space in which the powerless, victimized assistant, working dawn to dusk and beyond, lacks not only the most elemental sort of autonomy, but also friends and colleagues with whom she can share her distress.
Jane (as in Jane Doe) shares an office—furnished with grey metal desks and filing cabinets from Goffman’s era—with two young men (Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins) who throw wadded balls of paper at each other, mumble on about scripts and make cryptic phone calls, and whose only contribution to her life (though a humorous one) is to “script”/dictate her repeated email apologies to the angry boss (voice of Tony Torn). In one particularly humiliating scene, the assistant is left to entertain the boss’s 8-year-old daughter (Sophie Knapp), who makes horsey sounds, then compels the assistant to do the same. To maintain a shred of dignity through the grim workday, Jane, in an intense, interior performance by Julia Garner (Netflix’s “Ozark,” 2017- ), presents a cool, reserved front that belies her feelings.
In one particularly humiliating scene, the assistant is left to entertain the boss’s 8-year-old daughter (Sophie Knapp), who makes horsey sounds, then compels the assistant to do the same.
Aside from the assistant’s confining and demeaning “round of life” (a Goffman phrase), the film develops a related, equally important theme as she discovers that the boss, who is injecting a drug for erectile dysfunction, is taking advantage of a young wanna-be-a-star from Idaho (Kristine Froseth), as well as the nanny and some heavily made-up starlets. After one of several email apologies from the assistant, he pronounces—over email—“I’m gonna make you great,” at once invoking Trump and disgraced abuser Harvey Weinstein. The assistant (who is told she has nothing to worry about, “you’re not his type”) wants to protect the vulnerable—and she’ll try to do so—but she’s dealing with someone like Fox News’s Roger Ailes, and she’s no Megyn Kelly or Gretchen Carlson, who were portrayed in a very different #MeToo film, “Bombshell” (2019). In a particularly effective scene, the assistant meets with the company’s head of Human Resources, played to mealy perfection by Matthew Macfadyen (who has a similar role as the toady son-in-law in HBO’s “Succession,” 2018- ).
Australian writer, director and producer Kitty Green, whose filmography before “The Assistant” consisted of three award-winning documentaries (“Casting JonBenet,” 2017), makes the office an “every office” and creates characters that are more representational than they are individualized. Her script shrewdly never reveals much about the substance of anyone’s job except Jane’s (we hear only fragments of work conversations, as the assistant moves around the office), allowing the essential themes to emerge.
Oscar-winning film editor Walter Murch once observed that “films with a single point of view are on borrowed time if they are more than two hours long. Since there’s only one point of view, there’s no relief if the audience is not one hundred percent with the film.” Green’s “The Assistant” is just that—a single-point-of-view film—and at only 87 minutes, featuring a stellar performance from Garner, it works. You’ll be “with the film.”
3 Stars (out of 4 stars)
Director: Kitty Green,
Starring: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Sophie Knapp, (voice of) Tony Torn
Runtime: 87 minutes
Awards: To date, nominated for two awards, won one award, in regional festivals.
Availability: Streaming on Hulu, available for rent or purchase, Apple TV, Amazon, and elsewhere. See JustWatch here.