There are so many wise choices in Kitty Green's The Assistant. For one, you never see the boss. His presence is ever felt in every scene like some sort of insidious ghost. His name is never spoken and yet everyone knows him. This is a genius way of approaching telling a story that very much refers to Miramax and Harvey Weinstein. In removing a direct view of him, the film is not about him but about Jane, the assistant who over the course of one day realizes she works in a toxic environment. One where the excusal of sexual abuse is just part of the job.
The film is built upon Julia Garner's wonderful performance. The plot is thin, never really materializing. Rather, this is a long day meant to give the audience an experience of what it is like to know something terrible is happening and that no one is going to do anything about it because of the power dynamics. After seeing The Assistant, it will be hard not to think of it as sexual abuse cases in the workplace emerge in the news.
While most of the first half of the film is just mundane details of Jane's day, it all builds to a crucial scene where Jane goes to talk with Wilcock (Matthew Macfayden) in Human Resources. Jane tries to describe what she thinks is going on. A new assistant was hired, put up in a hotel, who has zero experience of skills. She is pretty and met the boss at a party a while back. The boss was at her hotel for a long time. Wilcock explains to her the culture of where she works in a scene that is so nuanced and beautifully performed that it will likely be one of the best scenes all year.
Green's writing and directing maintain tight control over how the story is told. She limits the point of view to be strictly through Jane. She never feels the need to spoon-feed information to the audience, letting us put things together as Jane does. The limits of the way the story is told are what make The Assistant such an assured film. Green comes from a background in documentaries and it shows. She did extensive interviews about the culture at Miramax to inform the screenplay.
With a knockout performance from Julia Garner and thoughtful direction from Green, The Assistant is an important and effective film. I think the lack of a plot and slow pace will frustrate some audiences but they work to give audiences an experience that would be hard to achieve in another way. You leave the film understanding so much about how the culture of an office can feed sexual abuse. The film does this unassumingly making it all the more resonant as you leave the theater.