After impressive performances in small supporting roles, Julia Garner has made quite a name for herself in the last few years with recurring roles in several series, including “The Americans,” and as one of the stars of “Ozark.” Her character on that show is aggressive and powerful, quite different from the woman she plays in Kitty Green’s “The Assistant.”
Jane is a recent college graduate who’s landed a job as an assistant to a powerful movie executive, which she hopes will be her first step towards becoming a producer. As the movie unfolds slowly, we see her going through the drudgery of her day — making coffee, printing/copying/distributing paperwork, and answering the phone.
There’s very little dialogue, and we never get a sense of what her boss is doing, but it’s obvious he’s a Harvey Weinstein type. While Jane cleans his office, she finds an earring on the floor and has to clean a stain off the couch. She also has to deal with angry phone calls from the exec’s wife, who wants to know where he is and why he won’t take her calls. Jane knows what’s going on, but like the two male assistants who share her workspace, she keeps her mouth shut and her head down.
But over the course of the single day that makes up “The Assistant,” she meets a young woman from Omaha who had crossed paths with the executive at a film festival. He’d invited her to come work as his assistant, too, but when he puts her up in a hotel, then disappears from the office for a couple of hours, Jane can’t sit still. She wants to protect this young woman from what she’s about to be forced into, but can’t warn her specifically.
Instead, she goes next door to the company’s human resources department to lodge a complaint. The guy she meets with appears to be listening to her concerns sympathetically, but quickly turns the tables on her and tells her it would be better if she didn’t file a report — or risk ruining the “bright future” everyone sees for her with the company. It finally occurs to Jane that the HR department is there to protect the boss and the company, not the employees. She demurs, he crumples up the paper, and she leaves.
By the time Jane returns to her desk, word of what she’s done — which she assumed was confidential — has reached her boss and everyone around her. She gets bawled out and has to write him an apologetic email, which the two male assistants help her with. It’s obviously not the first time they’ve witnessed this behavior, but they, too, are part of the problem.
“The Assistant” wants to be a condemnation of Weinstein and other men whose sexual harassment and assault behind closed doors is glossed over because they are so powerful that no one — colleagues and victims alike — dares to expose them. However, it moves way too slowly and takes a lot of patience to watch, as Jane’s drudgery becomes ours. Despite Garner’s quietly strong performance and a run time of only 87 minutes, I wish it were more compelling.
But I can only give “The Assistant” a 5 out of 10.
The movie had a theatrical release in some indie theaters just before we all began sheltering at home, but didn’t perform well at the box office. It’s now available on demand via some streaming services.