Now Streaming: “The Assistant”
Maybe the critics who saw “The Assistant” during its theatrical run in January didn’t want to scare viewers away by informing them that it was basically plotless. This is understandable. The film by writer/director Kitty Green (“Casting JonBenet”) is the kind of smart, modest work that needs help finding an audience. But now that it’s available to stream, and you have nothing better to do, it’s worth telling you the truth. It has almost no discernable plot, but it’s absolutely riveting.
“The Assistant” chronicles an ordinary day in the life of a woman who works for an abusive movie producer. He’s not Harvey Weinstein because he is never called that. Then again, it might be Harvey Weinstein because he is never called anything. We never see his face and barely hear his voice, only muffled tones from his office and the occasional obscenity shouted so loud we can hear it, even though the phone is pressed to her ear.
It’s probably Harvey Weinstein. He runs his company out of a small Tribeca office, where he entertains a parade of young, attractive women coming in and out. Some are young actresses eager for their big break, others are waitresses he met at Sundance who he flies to New York and puts up at hotels. Facilitating it all for him is Jane (Julia Garner), the assistant, a young woman who dreams of producing movies but is instead confronted with professional dilemmas no one could have prepared her for. It’s her very first job.
The film chronicles a series of microaggressions Jane suffers on a daily basis, demonstrating how an abusive person at the top of any system – a company, a family, or heck, even a country – can create a culture of misogyny and abuse so ubiquitous it takes great effort just to see it. But we do see it. We see it in the way the other two assistants, both male, force Jane to take calls from the boss’s wife, who is often distraught and reasonably so. The way it’s she and not another assistant who is asked to “tidy up” his office, which includes washing stains out of the couch and returning stray earrings to the woman he entertained there the night before.
It’s particularly evident in the response she gets from the HR representative who she finally brings her concerns to. It’s the one dramatic moment in the film, and it doesn’t even amount to much. He barely breaks a sweat convincing her to keep her mouth shut, before adding insult to injury by telling her on the way out, “Don’t worry. You’re not his type.”
Some viewers will watch these events and complain that the story lacked drama. After all, nothing is really changed by the end of it. Others will see a woman heroically trying to balance her own ambition with her sense of right and wrong, while fending off an escalating series of abuses. I can’t imagine anything more dramatic than that.
It’s all held together by Garner, who gives a miraculous central performance. Because Jane is so powerless, she has very little dialogue, and even when given a chance to speak, she responds as succinctly as possible to avoid drawing further attention to herself. But Garner conveys an inner life through her physicality alone. She gives Jane the look of many young women in their first job, turned inward, trying hard not to be seen. Her tense, upright posture seems like fear at first – frozen like prey – but it morphs before our eyes into a quiet strength.
It’s a film full of similarly admirable choices. It would have been easy to make “The Assistant” more akin to last year’s “Bombshell,” which favored impersonation over subtle acting, and a convenient blend of fact and fiction to tell whatever story it wanted while still claiming verisimilitude. “The Assistant” is far better. With its taut narrative approach and ambitious restraint, it’s a minimalist masterwork that would be considered more cinematic if it didn’t feel so painfully close to reality.
The Assistant is now available to stream on Amazon Prime and ITunes.