Arts movie review

Working for Hollywood

Director Kitty Green takes us behind the scenes of her film ‘The Assistant’

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Julia Garner stars in 'The Assistant' as Jane, a new assistant at a film production company.
Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media

The Assistant
Directed by Kitty Green
Screenplay by Kitty Green
Starring Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Noah Robbins, Kristine Froseth, Makenzie Leigh
Rated R, Now Playing

“Don’t worry, she’ll get more out of it than he will.” This seemingly reassuring line, muttered through a doorway, does nothing to cut the continuous discomfort that permeates The Assistant

Jane (Julia Garner) is a new assistant at an unnamed film production company. Fresh out of school and immediately landing a job working for (who is assumed to be) a major figure in the film industry would be a dream come true for anyone looking to make it in Hollywood. However, Jane’s initial optimism is broken down piecemeal as she is met with the harsh reality of working in such an environment. 

In a society where the abhorrent actions and intentional ignorance of Hollywood’s elite have been unraveled, The Assistant acts as a period piece, set in a time before the Weinstein scandals and #MeToo movement. It harkens back to the time when people blindly worked for moguls like Weinstein, obeying every order out of fear or ambition (or both).

Director Kitty Green sat down for a college roundtable interview to shed some insight onto the film and the making of it. Because she comes from a documentary background, it might have made sense for Green to have made a documentary on the topic. Instead, she chose to make a film out of it.

“If it were a documentary, it would’ve felt like a reel of women complaining. [With film], you can really hone in on the gestures, the microaggressions.” said Green.

The use of gestures and attention to detail is masterful. Whether Jane is picking up a stray earring from her boss’s floor or eating a solitary bowl of froot loops, her every move feels strained. Garner adeptly conveys a sense of detached pain; it feels as though Jane wants nothing more than to leave but must soldier on. Every insult Jane suffers, every unsettling situation she witnesses, every small mess she must clean up, is so densely layered that by the end of the film, its weight feels almost suffocating.

Green emphasizes that The Assistant is the narrative of a woman. The boss is never depicted on screen, which was entirely intentional. Green wanted to move away from the overwhelming number of depictions of the “bad men.” 

“The idea [is] that if we get rid of Harvey Weinstein, we fix everything. It’s a bigger problem than that. In order to address [it] we need to look at not just how to stop assault, but how to get women into more positions of power,” Green said. 

The executives in the film are nameless and faceless. They could be any men, and Jane herself could be any woman. This was a key decision on Green’s part: “[I] didn’t make anything in it too personal so anyone could connect with [Jane],” she said. And she succeeded. Women from all walks of industry (a yacht company, cosmetics, etc.) had come up to her to express the relatability of the movie.

Having already been researching the topic of consent and power structures on college campuses, after the Weinstein scandal broke in 2017, Green decided to shift her subject onto the film industry, interviewing many women who had experienced the life Jane led in the film. 

From former employees of the bankrupt Weinstein company and Miramax employees whose NDAs were over to current employees at major studios, Green was able to start piecing together the struggles of being a woman in the business. She heard stories of how strangely personal tasks would be sandwiched between mundane office work — the assistant might pick an earring off the floor, for instance.

The pacing of the film is unique in that the audience is made to go through every step of Jane’s day with her. From the depressing cereal in the morning to each phone call and photocopy, there is no montage of the more mundane tasks to skip to the suspicious earring pickup.

Green spared no details — she “didn’t want to let people off the hook.” She wants you to feel as uncomfortable as Jane feels in the scenes. And in a way, it makes it feel more real than it already is. It is like you’re literally going through the day with the character, forcing you to take some responsibility as well. 

Green’s vision is successful. The camera rarely leaves Jane, and we are entirely focused on her every move. As she hungrily reads a screenplay, her dreams become ours. As she rushes to send an apologetic email, her panic becomes ours as well. The film feels like a slow-motion explosion; the tension is unbearably painful, and yet it is impossible to look away.

Another unique aspect to the film is the eerie silence, illustrating the “culture of silence” that had been adopted. With the only sounds coming from office work, like keyboard clicking and paper shuffling, the conscious lack of music makes it easier for the audience to step into Jane’s shoes. Between the drone of office lights and the metallic thud of cabinets closing, conversations are the only respite the audience has from the silence that seems to hang heavy over the office.

With such a short script and limited dialogue, the film more or less relies on Garner’s performance, which is the highlight of the film. When casting, Green wanted someone who would be “infinitely watchable” since the audience would just be watching Jane go through her daily tasks for most of the movie.

In addition to Garner, Kristine Froseth stands out as Sienna, a bright-eyed young woman from Idaho the company suddenly hires. Froseth’s sweet delivery of the line, “Do I need a lawyer or something?” as she rifles through stacks of papers, stung sharply. We see this scene through Jane’s eyes, and as Garner hesitates, we feel her unease.

As Green puts it, Garner is “infinitely watchable”; each expression, each action is delivered with the most thoughtful of processes. Her Jane feels deeply familiar — someone we know, someone we care about, someone we could become.

Unafraid to criticize the very business it comes from, The Assistant is intelligent in its vision and execution. It is certainly not a light-hearted movie, but rather an eye-opening experience.