Written By: Lucas Nochez
Welcome! Have a seat.
As normal a greeting as could be, yet, the ramifications of such words hold such heavy and enduring provocations in Kitty Green’s feature film debut The Assistant.
Fairly new to the narrative feature film world, Australian born Kitty Green gives audience members a documentarian style, “day in the life of” type film, shadowing the daily routine life of Jane (Julia Garner). Jane is a highly stressed, over-worked, entry-level assistant to an unnamed film mogul in New York City.
Seems like pretty regular stuff, right? Yet, Green’s Assistant is nothing short of extraordinary, yet completely relatable and ordinary to so many people watching it. Doused in elements of film-noir, to elements of an extreme thriller, The Assistant is a bold and brave new voice at the dawn of the #MeToo era of socially conscious, gender-inclusive filmmaking. And while the coincidences of the Harvey Weinstein case are hard to shake while watching each and every gripping frame of this film, it becomes a double-edged sword, of sorts, for Green’s chilling message. Yes, the obvious similarities to the once-famed and respected film mogul are apparent, yet this translucent piece of cinema is neither a documentation or reimagining of the obscenities of that one person, rather a realization that such small, impactful and everyday choices are heralded everyday, in every office, every workplace and happens or has happened to each and every one of us, regardless of gender.
Gathering the voices and stories of so many nameless individuals, as well as her own experiences in the world of film, Green uses subtle little anecdotes of each and every one of us, to relay a story as timeless as it is timely.
Stressed with on-going mundane tasks, Jane is subjected to so many responsibilities at her place of employment. From shifting schedules, booking hotels, travel arrangements and lying regularly to people over the phone, Jane’s good-hearted and innocent spirit is constantly battling and struggling with her own moral compass. Yet, with every opportunity of being kind-hearted, loyal and honest, her actions are almost immediately overmanned and undermined with character degrading emails to her boss, apologizing and asking for his forgiveness. Sentences such as, “I overreacted”, “It was not my place”, or “”I will not let you down again”, flood the screen of Jane’s emails. But Green is much more interested in the tiny actions much more than the larger melodrama filling most multiplexes today.
Like many classics thrillers, including Psycho and Rear Window, the notion that what’s shown off-screen will always be scarier than what we see on-screen; Green takes notes from these masterclass directors and shows her confidence in her actors and screenplay, allowing the heavy words and off-screen actions to thrill, disturb and keep the audience’s imagination constantly churning. While its hard to ignore the not-so-subtle messages being yelled towards the screen, the whole concept of ignoring what is right in front of you, and being ignored, are both very complex aspects of The Assistant. As an audience, we ask ourselves, “What can we do?”, if we were in Jane’s position, or if, we are in fact, in Jane’s position right NOW. Then, question like, “what do we do?” are the questions left flooding our own heads.
The Assistant, although casted with gendered actors, is a genderless and mandatory “fly-in-the-soup” type cinematic experience. The audience can easily imagine the role of Jane being a male, and the mogul role being a female, or both males or female characters, interchangeably. The genders portrayed in the films are as irrelevant as exactly what happens behind closed doors in each and every one of those offices. What matters most is the actions we take, even when our actions sometimes have no real ramifications or resolve. A challenge seen when Jane approaches Mr. Willcock, her HR department head, who, without hesitation, completely ignores her very strong cases of obvious sexual misconduct in the workplace, involving, none of than the commander-in-chief. Yet, like so many other nameless faces before and after Jane, instead of facing issues presented by disgruntled employees because of people in high place of power, these people who are hired to enact action and take the positions of the workers, threatens her position within the company; implying that he thought she was “smart”, as well as reminding her as competitive her position is and how she was chosen amongst so many other women who applied. Yet, throughout the film, through conversations Jane has with her parents, friends and family, constantly remind and encourage her just how “proud” they are of the position she has earned, and being constantly brainwashed just by how much of a great opportunity this is for her and her potential future. It becomes clear that the job that a bright young woman once wanted, becomes a very real nightmare she lives out each and everyday. This position, becomes a contorted, idealistic acceptance of abusive workplace normality, a symbol of so many other workplaces that are being plagued globally.
Luckily for us, the face, front and centre of The Assistant is Julia Garner. A doe-eyed and very talented actress who has previously been seen in other masterworks such as Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. Garner delivers, easily, her best performance to date. Showcasing her nuanced demeanour in the most mundane of ways, Garner commands the screen and her role of Jane with formidable confidence and poise. From photocopying headshots of attractive women, welcoming countless beautiful young women into the office space and meeting with children, Garner’s Jane is the Jane Doe that we all know, need and relate to, compassionately. Blending notions of defeat, pain, suffering and professionalism all on screen, Garner is a revelation to watch.
The Assistant premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival a mere few days ago, and will, without question, have a lingering and long-lasted effect on whomever watches it. Sleek, icy-cold and emotionally driven, The Assistant is a film we all need and deserve, in an era where comments such as “You’re not his type”, or physical appearances dictate the work you do, the qualities of your character, the the positions you land in the workplace and the stories you tell. The importance of this film is not just generational, but The Assistant is an assistance to the very small yet impactful steps people around the world need to take in order for change to happen. The first step to addressing every problem, is owning and realizing that there is a problem. The Assistant may be a small and quiet film, but it is yelling at the top of its lungs, campaigning and being a renegade for a very loud and on-going issue happening everywhere.
Looks like this decade is off to a very great start. Why don’t you take off your jacket? Make yourself comfortable? Stay a while.
Night Film Reviews: 8.5 Out Of 10.
What did you think of The Assistant? Cry for help type filmmaking, or over-draught drama? What did you think of Julia Garner’s lead performance? What’s next for writer/director Kitty Green? Leave your loud thoughts below!