de facto film reviews 3 stars

With sexual harassment in the workplace finally being thrust into the media spotlight, we are now seeing more films exploring such wretched behavior. The #MeToo drama “The Assistant” is a gripping and unnerving film that holds a timely perspective on the toxic culture a patriarchal workplace can bring. The film is unique in that we never see the abusive boss, a Harvey Weinstein-like mogul. We also never hear the full details of his abusive actions. Instead, we see how his behaviors trickle down to wreak havoc.

This narrative feature film debut of Kitty Green, who has made numerous award-winning documentaries on the festival circuit is an urgent and cautionary plea for a safer workplace. The film is a chronicle of an entry-level assistant, Jane (Julia Garner), who is a very determined and hard-working young woman. She arrives to the office the earliest and is also one of the last people out of the office. It is vague what kind of company she works for, until we begin to realize that she works in the New York City office of a L.A. based movie production company. With Green’s documentary eye, the film feels very real, and shatters any romanticizing one might have about sexual harassment in the movie business. Green never makes a false move with “The Assistant”.

Image result for The Assistant Film Courtesy Bleeker Street

Green allows the material to feel very potent and vivid. It’s as if you are eavesdropping in every interaction and human detail. We believe the office operates the way it does. A film from last year on this covering some of this same topical ground, “Bombshell,” at times felt like a satirical romp, though it did sometimes connect with uncomfortable truths. “The Assistant” is another exploration on  abusiveness running amok, but this film feels more genuine and more urgent than Jay Roach’s polemic on Fox News. Green certainly did her research and found resources within herself to make it feel so honest and raw.

The sophistication of the film is within its psychology. A lesser director would go out of their way to show Jane’s boss doing the actions. But this film is never explicit in revealing who he is, or even revealing why he keeps arranging meetings with younger female assistants and aspiring actresses. Green allows the silence and atmosphere to take the forefront, and this silence allows the material to feel more chilling and smothering.

Image result for The Assistant Film Courtesy Bleeker Street

The observational approach works in Green’s favor. Especially in the build-up that gives the viewer a glimpse of Jane’s professional life. We see all of her routines as an assistant. She is responsible for opening the office, making coffee, printing documents, and wrangling her boss’s office that often has earrings left on the floor.

Jane’s work almost feels ritualistic, and she is always alone when she performs these routines. She is at the bottom of the hierarchy. She also ends up becoming everyone’s assistant, and must endure the heated tension and dirty looks since her boss is never there. When Jane is working, she is often ignored and feels almost invisible. Once the executive’s wife arrives, Jane ends up becoming like a nanny. Whatever is needed in the office is Jane’s responsibility.

Image result for The Assistant Film Courtesy Bleeker Street

This is a harsh film to endure, but it also holds great staying power in the mind. It is an essential film that is never heavy-handed in its exploration of sexual abuse in the workplace. It shows how the assistant’s mundane rituals of ignoring the problem can be very dangerous and subtly enabling. When Jane comes to find this behavior unbearable, she attempts to report the actions to a human resources director. He is very kind, but is a shield for her boss and ends up trying to convince her that the complaint should be dropped.

The brilliance of the film is how it captures the downward spiral of such vile behavior, and how the behavior on top trickles down and impacts everyone involved. It is a very muted but sophisticated film that is always engaging and involving. The film’s observational exploration reveals how abuses reaches a level of normalization, and even one’s ethics are often undermined due to power structures and hierarchy. The film is also a reminder that resistance is never futile – at some point the straw must break the camel’s back.

Image result for The Assistant film hr scene Courtesy Bleeker Street