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‘The Assistant’ Film Review: Julia Garner Navigates Toxic Work Culture in Subtly Devastating Drama

Sundance 2020: Writer-director Kitty Green uses a seemingly uneventful day at the office to expose #MeToo misogyny in the workplace

Our increasingly graphic culture has often made us expect, and sometimes uncomfortably desire, more explicit content in films, even those dealing with sexual harassment in the #MeToo era. Writer-director Kitty Green’s quiet, new drama, “The Assistant,” refuses to succumb to that proclivity.

But while the filmmaker rightly understands that shock value isn’t the only way to tell a visceral story, its central performance by Julia Garner is what makes the film most interesting to watch.

Clenching a wonderful actress is always a major coup for any director, especially for a debut dramatic feature. It perhaps says that the material was strong enough to attract a high-caliber star, and that there was a certain level of comfort and trust between Green and Garner. That’s definitely necessary for a film that explores the very sensitive matter of what it’s like to be a low-ranking female professional in an office dominated by powerful, lascivious men.

“The Assistant” isn’t so much about the toxic men that consume coveted spaces in the entertainment industry — the high-powered agents, producers, etc. — though it’s clear that is from where its tension derives. Rather, it follows a day in the life of its titular subject, Jane (Garner), an assistant for said powerful men, from the moment she wakes up (before dawn) to the time she turns off the lights in the office (late at night).

The camera trails Jane as she executes her menial tasks that, based on what’s widely known about the duties of Hollywood assistants, is true to real life: preparing the coffee, scheduling and rescheduling flights, liaising between the hot-headed boss man and his suspicious wife on the phone. The usual.

In fact, the first half of the film can be pretty tedious to watch: We are only watching Jane work. Green’s camera angles, often peering down at her from overhead as she grabs coffee mugs or stares blankly at her email, merely highlight the mundanity of her job, which could really be any assistant position. There’s nothing particularly distinctive about what we’re seeing in this first act.

Even the men that surround Jane are nebulous. Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) also play assistants in Jane’s office, and they’re each credited simply as “Male Assistant.” Essentially, they’re the guys who are unfazed by, and sometimes even participating in, the misogynistic culture of the environment, only swooping in to help their female counterpart craft the routine apology email to her boss for stepping a half-inch out of line.

In “The Assistant,” there is nary a raised voice or harsh tone. We never even see Jane’s boss on screen. It’s easy to suggest that Green allows the audience to anticipate something popping off at any moment, considering the culture the film is depicting, but it is actually Garner’s subtle yet palpable dread throughout her performance — characterized by her shaky voice and the way she flits around — that builds stress and discomfort. That’s further enhanced by Dani Broom-Peltz’s effectively claustrophobic set decoration, which captures everything from the dull office lighting to the colorless walls.

What Green is really drawing the audience’s attention toward is the culture of complicity — the habitual nature of faceless male execs luring novice young female professionals to five-star hotels for “unknown” reasons, to the men of all ranks joking and taking pride in this behavior, and to the remaining workers like Jane who are hunkered down at their desks just desperate to stay unnoticed. There’s rarely an intimidating element in the whole film; the story just is.

While that’s a necessary function to accurately express what it’s like to work in this kind of environment, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that when a fearful Jane decides to visit Human Resources to report the behavior, my attention was finally elevated. That’s partly because it’s well known that in any industry, the department is there to protect the company, not the employee, and watching someone like Jane, who’s only been on the job for two months, attempt to blow the lid off of what’s going on comes with an indescribable anxiety.

It’s the note that the audience is waiting for the entire film, and Garner (along with Matthew Macfadyen, who plays the HR rep) nails it. It’s uncomfortable, horrific, and deeply sad. While “The Assistant” more than tries the audience’s patience, often times only succeeding at creating a bleak diary of the day’s events, this moment makes it actually tremble.

Obviously there is plenty of unambiguous reflection and plenty of movies (for example, “Bombshell”) about the lewd acts of men in power, but what’s often missing in the conversation is how someone like Jane, a woman who’s alone and seen as the lowest end of the totem pole, navigates what’s happening around her. While Jane doesn’t directly experience rape or sexual harassment, “The Assistant” shines a light on how the culture of acceptance that enables such crimes erodes the ambition, safety and souls of dutiful young women like her who are all but invisible. It’s a devastating realization, making the film sneakily impactful.