Not so long ago, 2020 looked like being the year of the #MeToo movie. Bombshell arrived in the UK at the start of the year, while the end of January saw Promising Young Woman make its Sundance debut. It popped up as Glasgow’s Surprise Film in early March and, well, we all know what happened shortly afterwards. While it hasn’t been re-scheduled, another Sundance hit, also originally aimed at an April cinema release, has decided to plough on regardless and make the move to digital. And, for anybody who’s already heard about The Assistant, it’s a piece of very welcome news.
The assistant of the title is Jane (a hugely watchable Julia Garner), one of a young team working for the CEO of a film production company. This is one day in her working life, what seems like a typical one involving anything and everything from tidying up the boss’s office and doing the lunch run to fielding phone calls from his increasingly angry ex-wife and coercing colleagues to cover for him when he’s out of the office. All routine stuff, except that as her day progresses, what unfolds is the undercurrent of abuse and humiliation that’s the prevalent – albeit unspoken – culture of the company. And when she tries to do voice her concerns, the response isn’t what she hopes for.
Anybody who’s ever worked in an office – correction, anybody who’s ever had a job working with other people – will find moments that ring very loud bells. How many and how often depends on their individual working history, but writer/director Kitty Green, in her feature film debut, creates an office environment so minutely observed that, although we’re watching everything through Jane’s eyes, we’re seeing it through our own experiences as well. Those annoying papers cuts, the photocopier breaking down, everybody watching while she tries to put it right, and how a single remark from a colleague can change the entire atmosphere. It’s all minutiae, but it’s all big at the same time – if you like, the other side of The Office, either UK or US, but the darker side.
“The boss” – we never learn his name – casts a giant, all-pervasive shadow over the company, even though we never see his face and can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times we hear him speak – rasping and aggressive – aside from the muffled tones coming from the other side of the frequently closed door. The only time it’s ever open is when he’s not there. That we never see his face just emphasises the frightening extent of his power and control, compared to the lowly Jane, who’s on the bottom rung of the ladder and has everything to lose if she doesn’t fit in with the company’s unspoken culture. Given the name that’s been in the headlines so often over the past couple of years, it doesn’t take much working out to know who he’s based on.
When Jane decides to complain to HR – in effect, this is the climax of the film, made all the more impactful by its seeming ordinariness – it becomes crystal clear just how insidiously poisonous the company culture actually is. Her concerns are valid but hard to quantify and dismissed with a symbolically scrunched up piece of paper thrown dismissively in the bin. Worse still, the assertion that the conversation is confidential is exposed as a hollow lie: the expressions on the faces of her colleagues when she returns from that meeting say it all.
Steeped in reality – Kitty Green interviewed over 100 women about their experiences in the film industry – The Assistant is all the more effective for its attention to the smallest details which means anybody and everybody watching it can identify with the film on some level. What happens to Jane could happen in any work environment, office or not, and that’s what makes it such a powerful, uncomfortable watch. It’s compelling. And so important.
The Assistant is released on digital platforms on Friday, 1 May 2020.