In the opening minutes of The Assistant, Jane (Ozark’s Julia Garner), an entry-level employee at a well-known film production company, is on her hands and knees, cleaning her boss’ office in the predawn hours, before any other employees arrive. She gathers up used plates and cups for washing, wipes crumbs and white powder from a coffee table. She dons rubber gloves to spot-treat the sofa, the sickening suggestion of what’s taken place there the night before hovering in the air. She lifts a stray earring from the carpet and tucks it away for safekeeping.
The 800-lb. gorilla in the room is Harvey Weinstein, though a character like him never appears onscreen. While Weinstein and men of his ilk have dominated much of the public conversation for the last two years, the story of The Assistant, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival today, is not theirs. It belongs instead to Jane — and to the nearly 100 women writer-director Kitty Green interviewed while developing the film, whose experiences she melded to craft an intimate and often deeply uncomfortable portrait of one day in the life of a young, female employee.
A documentarian best known for Casting JonBenet, which made a splash at Sundance two years ago, Green had been working on different project — a film about sexual violence, power, and consent on college campuses — in October 2017, when the Weinstein news broke. Immediately, she shifted her focus to the film industry. She reached out to people who’d worked at the Weinstein Company and Miramax, the Weinstein brothers’ first operation, then gradually expanded her probe to other Hollywood production companies, agencies, and studios. A former architecture student, she eventually began asking friends who work in architecture and engineering about their workplace experiences, too. As she closed in on six months of near-daily interviews, she realized something unsettling: Regardless of the industry the women worked in, their experience level, their age, the stories were all eerily similar.
“I was seeing the same patterns emerge no matter who I spoke to,” says Green. “I went to the UK, Australia, L.A., New York. I would hear a story from 20 years ago, from someone who worked in the UK for a predatory boss, and I’d hear the same story, with almost exactly the same details — like, on a yacht, in a specific place — from somebody who worked in New York a year ago, just for a different boss. It was absurd. I thought, I’m hearing the same thing over and over again, I think I’m ready to commit this to paper.”
The resulting script — Green’s first fully narrative feature — was light on dialogue but rich with atmospheric detail, offering a nuanced and highly specific picture of the microaggressions Jane must endure on a minute-by-minute basis at work. Though she is an aspiring producer with a degree from a prestigious university, she is saddled with menial, often domestic tasks, from serving food to watching after her boss’ children, handling any calls from his irate wife, and, in one stomach-turning scene, unpacking his latest shipment of erectile dysfunction drugs.
“That was something common to a lot of people, the blurring of the lines between personal and professional,” Green says. “Like the idea that babysitting the kids is part of the job, which is insane — you’re in the film industry, why are you playing games with a child for half your day? But that is expected of you, because you are a woman. There’s this gendered division of labor I find really interesting.”
Even when other employees arrive to the office (a dim and unglamorous Tribeca building that’s a dead ringer for the former Weinstein headquarters), conversation is mostly background noise, a pitter-patter of spot-on Hollywood jargon and references to industry hangouts, including a couple of hotels Weinstein was known to prefer for meetings with actresses. Our point of view is Jane’s and Jane’s alone as she silently weathers a steady drip of slights, particularly from two more senior, male assistants. In some cases, their condescension is obvious (chastising her for accidentally ordering turkey, instead of chicken, sandwiches); in others, it is disguised as charity, as when they both crowd over her chair, uninvited, to help her draft an apology email to her boss for some imagined infraction. They are simultaneously generous and intimidating, their mere physicality a kind of looming, unspoken threat.
The film is a collection of small moments like this. There is no rape, no overtly outrageous incident. It is discrimination by a thousand paper cuts.
“I was looking at toxic work environments, and the way that, if you let some bad behavior go, then they can push it a little further,” Green says. “It’s an entry point for misconduct, because if they can get away with X, can they get away with Y?”
The dynamic plays out more sharply with Jane’s boss, who alternately berates her over the phone and apologizes, doling out lame compliments, via email. It’s textbook abuser behavior that’s all too effective at getting ambitious young people, women in particular, to suffer for the promise of future success.
“There’s a lot of carrot and stick,” Green notes. “If the bosses are truly horrible, you just leave. But there are little things that you cling to, tiny reasons to get up out of bed and go back the next day. These [complimentary] emails, or a supportive colleague, or someone just noticing you at all.”
There is a sense throughout The Assistant that Jane, though she’s just starting out in her chosen field, is being suffocated. She even, at one point, attempts to make a complaint with the company’s head of human resources (Succession’s Matthew MacFayden), but she has such a difficult time describing what has upset her — offenses that are by their very nature nebulous — that she is swiftly discouraged, in devastating fashion, from filing any kind of report. It is yet another example of a system that should exist to protect women serving only to reinforce structural abuses.
While it all sounds grim and maybe even hopeless, Green’s aim with The Assistant is not to point the finger at any one person or group, but to spark a deeper conversation about issues surrounding workplace toxicity and gender discrimination.
“When we’re looking at interrogating this system that’s allowed women to be sidelined for so long, it’s not just men that are accountable,” she says. “We all have to examine our role, women included. So much of the MeToo coverage was like, Oh, these few bad apples — we get rid of Harvey Weinstein and everything will be fixed. But the problem is bigger that. It’s systemic, it’s cultural, and we need to all ask how we can make it better, how we can improve on it, how we can see change — not just a few bad men.”