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Review: The Assistant (2020)

The Assistant (2020)

Directed by: Kitty Green

Premise: A young woman (Julia Garner) works as an assistant to a film producer. As she arranges lunches, travel, and meetings, the assistant suspects that the producer is abusing would-be actresses.

What Works: The Assistant is a pared down drama. Sparseness is among the movie’s greatest assets but its sleek storytelling allows for pockets of substance in the margins. The Assistant is a slice-of-life tale of a long suffering secretary and the various indignities she experiences throughout her workday. The movie’s style is observational and mostly detached. Director Kitty Green generally keeps her camera at a distance but the action is staged deliberately. We understand the meaning of what’s happening because of the way characters are spaced and framed on the screen. This is especially effective in moments in which the titular assistant shares her office with a pair of male coworkers. Without ever overtly saying it, we understand how she is alienated and excluded. The Assistant handles the issue of sexual harassment and abuse quite well. What the producer is doing is obvious but it is never shown or even spoken of overtly. The assistant pieces it together, and we along with her, and in doing so the filmmakers dramatize the role of power and position in workplace harassment. Being low in the hierarchy of the business, the assistant is in little position to do anything about what’s happening. What’s more, other employees also make reference to what’s happening but no one is able or willing to do anything about it and The Assistant illustrates the way an abusive workplace is sustained. The filmmaking style is matched by Julia Garner’s performance in the title role. Garner’s performance is primarily physical. Even when she’s talking, Garner communicates a lot more in the way she speaks and holds herself. The stress she’s experiencing is ever present in her character and the film captures the pervasive fear of a hostile workplace. That’s one of the admirably challenging qualities of The Assistant. Some other movies on this topic like Bombshell imply that once the abuser is exposed the matter is closed. The Assistant does not offer that kind of reassurance and instead asks viewers to ponder their own responsibility on this issue. 

What Doesn’t: The Assistant isn’t a conventional movie. It’s driven by subtlety. The dialogue is mostly incidental; the point is rarely what is said but the way it is spoken and much of the plot and character details are in the way events are staged and the nonverbal aspects of the actors’ performances. That attention to detail makes The Assistant an extraordinary piece of filmmaking but the movie does not deliver the kind of catharsis we usually experience in a mainstream motion picture. The way it’s made is appropriate to the themes and subject matter but The Assistant requires some extra effort by the viewer.

DVD extras: None.

Bottom Line: The Assistant is somewhat unconventional in its storytelling but it is a very effective piece of filmmaking. The movie is designed to construct the experience of working in a hostile workplace and it does that in a way that is visceral and highlights the subtle, everyday qualities that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Episode: #811 (August 2, 2020)