THE ASSISTANT. Jane (Julia Garner) is often just trying to eat. Arriving at the office in the dismal Manhattan pre-dawn, she finally gets a second to wolf down a bowl of Froot Loops when her menacing, unseen boss arrives, curtailing her would-be breakfast. Later, when she brings lunch for herself and her male deskmates (because of course it's her responsibility), she can't even take a bite before one of them complains he wanted chicken instead of turkey. Cleaning up after a mid-morning meeting, she scavenges a left-behind doughnut but is caught in the act; we don't know if she got the chance to finish it. After working all day and into the night, she microwaves a TV dinner in resignation. As she contemplates the glop and we consider its symbolism, the boss informs her by phone from an adjacent office that she may go. She dumps the dinner, decamps to a diner and buys the world's saddest muffin. Having been too caught up at work to call her dad on his birthday, she does so belatedly. The truncated, superficial call interrupts her last attempt at sustenance and solace. The muffin is hastily, exhaustedly wrapped up and stuffed away so she can begin the trudge back to Astoria and start the process all over again.
The Assistant is the most concise, composed, controlled movie I've seen this year. There is not a frame out of place, not a note of music until its prescribed moment. Even the dialogue is ultra-minimal, much of it almost sub-audible, picked up at a distance from phone receivers and through office walls. So I can't help but believe that Jane's attempts to feed herself (and the food she chooses) are an important element of both her character and the narrative within which she is situated. Fresh-faced but confident, competent, it is obvious that she is young (a recent college graduate maybe), but her seeking out vividly colorful breakfast cereal, doughnuts, blueberry muffins all seem to speak to an inner child not allowed to live in the world. Even her choice of a microwavable dinner to consume at her desk feels like the decision of a kid acting as she thinks an adult would. Further, she never gets a chance to actually relish the foods she selects, that she wants. The world of supposed grown-up responsibility, of steaming glop in a tray, intercedes. She can dump the Salisbury steak in favor of an unfinished baked good, but it will still be there in the waste-paper basket, figuratively if not literally, when she returns to work in tomorrow's gray beginning, ad infinitum.
The first scripted feature from writer-director Kitty Green, who previously made the documentaries Ukraine Is Not a Brothel (2013) and Casting JonBenet (2017), The Assistant places us just outside Jane's point of view, following her at close distance, observing her like a fly on the wall as she moves through one only-slightly horrible, traumatic workday in the New York office of, presumably, a prominent movie studio boss. She makes travel arrangements, tidies the inner office, collates P&Ls and production schedules, pays bills. But she also gathers up used needles, restocks injectable erectile dysfunction meds — I had to look that one up; shudder — fields irate phone calls from the mogul's wife because her senior coworkers are cowards and is alternately berated and praised (via room-to-room emails) by the pointedly unseen man himself. Oh, and she has to spend some time cleaning genetic material from his office couch. As it becomes painfully clear what's going on with the young actresses whose headshots she frequently delivers, and with the innocent just flown in from Boise, Jane takes it upon herself to say something. But the mercenary head of HR (Matthew Macfadyen), by turns cajoling and condemnatory, spins her own words out and against her until she is ashamed of even arriving but excited at the prospect of a bright future with the company. The snare gets tighter the more she struggles, but what is the alternative?
The Assistant is clearly drawn from the recent, long overdue outing of a number of predatory sex criminals in the entertainment industry, Harvey Weinstein in particular. But it also speaks to the barrier to entry for women into the halls of power at large. Jane's ambition is to be a producer; she isn't a Hollywood starlet type. She won't be targeted by the boss to trade her body for career opportunities. Instead, she will be subjected to constant degradation, she will have to outwork and outperform her male counterparts, sell out other women and wait for occasional faint praise as a sop to her exhaustion and sorrow.
She might get one bite of muffin after she scrubs semen out of a cushion and tomorrow will do it all over again. R. 87M. STREAMING ON DEMAND.
John J. Bennett is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase and prefers he/him pronouns.